Bid to end Rx ownership restriction snags on a technicality in North Dakota

BISMARCK, N.D. A bid to overturn North Dakota’s restrictive pharmacy-ownership law suffered a major setback late last week when a high state official rejected thousands of signatures gathered in an arduous, months-long petition drive.

The state is the last in the nation to require that most retail pharmacies operating within its boundaries be majority-owned by a licensed pharmacist. The law, which is similar to restrictions imposed on pharmacies in Canada, effectively prohibits such national-chain competitors as Walgreens, Target and Walmart from selling prescriptions in the state or from offering nationally advertised discounts to North Dakota consumers.

The ownership law has been on the books since the early 1960s, and pharmacy chains have long fought to overturn the restriction via legislation. Some chains, including Walmart, operate a few stores by leasing them to local pharmacists. A handful of others in existence before the ownership law took effect in 1963 also continue to operate under a grandfather clause, but nearly 90% of the drug stores operating in North Dakota are owned by independents, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, versus a national independent ownership share of roughly 30%.

The state legislature defeated a move last year to repeal the ban on nonpharmacist ownership, prompting a chain pharmacy-backed group called North Dakotans for Lower Prescription Drug Prices to redouble its efforts to end the restriction through a statewide petition drive.

That campaign was successful in gathering the minimum 12,844 signatures from state voters on a petition to get the issue on a statewide ballot this November. But the petition drive stalled at the finish line last week, when Secretary of State Al Jaeger rejected the petitions over a technicality. The petitions, he ruled, were invalid because they didn't include lists of the 25 backers sponsoring the ballot measure, according to the Associated Press.

Each copy of the petition needed a list of those sponsors to be valid, according to state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, AP reported. At press time, advocates were said to be scrambling to salvage the petition campaign, but they only have until Aug. 25 to correct the deficiency, according to the report.