Rx DRUG COSTS: Congressional Group Pushes Import Bill
A bipartisan, bicameral congressional group yesterday turned up the heat on the FDA drug import bill that would make it easier to import U.S.-made drugs from foreign countries, CongressDaily/A.M. reports. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair James Jeffords (R-Vt.) said that the group would do "whatever it takes" to keep the amendment language in the FY 2001 Agriculture appropriations bill. Both the Senate and House approved different versions of the import amendment. Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) said, "There is less than one month left to this session of Congress, and the American people want to know whether the Congress has the guts to stand up to the enormously powerful pharmaceutical industry and bring justice to this country." Congress members also berated the pharmaceutical industry's attacks on the bill, accusing the industry of "launching a scare campaign." The pharmaceutical industry has been running an ad warning that the amendment's approval could harm U.S. consumers by allowing "counterfeit or outdated" products into the country. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) said, "The pharmaceutical industry's attack on safety is bogus. The only safety the pharmaceutical industry is concerned about ... is the safety to make exorbitant profits." While Wellstone also asserted his hope for the White House "to exert its leadership" on the issue, in a letter to appropriators, administration officials opposed the House-passed amendment, saying it "severely restrict(s) the (FDA's) authority to enforce the law that allows only manufacturers to reimport drugs." But the letter also did not give outright approval to the Senate-approved amendment, saying that version, while "clearly preferable to the unacceptably flawed House provisions," would not "provide the resources to implement this amendment for FY 2001."
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In the meantime, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Commerce Committee Chair John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation yesterday that would streamline the generic drug approval process and eliminate loopholes in drug patent laws that now allow drugmakers to extend patents on brand-name medications. McCain said that the bill would "only enhance our ability to afford live-saving therapy." But a drug industry spokesperson called the bill a "one-sided approach," adding that it was "solely [designed] to speed generic drug approvals," but "fails to help patients waiting for new medicines." And while prospects for a Medicare prescription benefit are "bleak," CongressDaily/A.M. reports that they "have not disappeared." Senate HELP Committee ranking member Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that Democrats "are still strongly committed to finding some common ground." Kennedy added that the party might force their drug proposal, as well as a patients' bill of rights provision into bills Congress is currently considering. He said, "We will vote on this at some point. If we get these issues up in the full light of day, our chances of getting them passed are enhanced." Also yesterday, Senate Finance Committee member Bob Graham (D-Fla.) blasted Finance Chair William Roth (R-Del.) for complaining that there isn't sufficient time to consider a Medicare drug benefit. Graham said, "It's like murdering your parents and throwing yourself on the mercy of the court because you're an orphan" (Rovner/Fulton, 9/15).