Rx DRUG COSTS: Senate Approves Measure to Lift Import Ban
Striking a blow against the pharmaceutical industry, the Senate voted 74-21 yesterday to allow pharmacists and wholesalers to import less expensive drugs from other countries, the New York Times reports. Lawmakers also unanimously approved an amendment sponsored by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) requiring the FDA to declare that allowing drug imports would "significantly" lower consumers' costs and "pose no risk" to public health and safety. According to supporters, the measure, along with a similar House-approved bill, "sends a strong signal" to drug companies about the spiraling costs of pharmaceutical products. "This is a shot across the bow," Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), chief sponsor of the legislation, said (Holmes/Pear, 7/20). He asked, "Why should Americans pay the highest prices for drugs? All this amendment does is allow international competition to bring rational pricing to the prescription drug industry" (Cauchon/Kiely, USA Today, 7/20). According to opponents, however, the proposal would result in a deluge of subpar or counterfeit imports, because the FDA cannot effectively police the way foreign companies produce, store and transport drugs. "If it's coming from Canada, that's not a bad deal," Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) said, warning, "But this amendment is not limited to Canada. We'd be importing from Third World countries" (New York Times, 7/20). Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said, "This is the FDA that now admits it's unable to inspect the food coming into this country" (McGinley, Wall Street Journal, 7/20). To address those concerns, however, Jeffords' proposal contains safeguards to protect consumers from impure or imitation drugs. "Safety is a legitimate issue, but because of the high price of drugs, hundreds of thousands of elderly sick people cannot afford to fill the prescriptions that they receive," Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the House bill's sponsors, said (New York Times, 7/20).
Drug Industry Backlash
Although patients may benefit from the measure, the Senate vote angered drug companies, which had successfully blocked similar legislation in previous years. The industry lobbied heavily against this year's Senate bill, purchasing full-page ads in several major newspapers across the country (USA Today, 7/20). According to Alan Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, "The Senate's action ... could jeopardize patient safety and would not ensure any savings for consumers" (Wall Street Journal, 7/20). Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) warned, however, that the measure would have a "serious financial effect" on the industry, which relies on high U.S. drug prices for research funding. He said, "[I]n our understandable and highly populist zeal to make drugs more affordable, ... we should [not] kill the goose that laid the golden egg" (USA Today, 7/20). But Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the other main sponsor of the Senate provision, criticized the drug industry. "The pharmaceutical industry wants to scare people into believing the legislation is bad for consumers," he said, adding, "We would ... assure consumers they can have access to drugs that are priced reasonably."
While the drug import bill sailed through the Senate, the Cochran amendment could delay lifting the ban by saddling the FDA with the "extensive rulemaking exercise" needed to ensure the safety and low cost of reimported drugs. The legislation will now head to a House-Senate conference committee. While the Clinton administration supports Jeffords' proposal, White House health policy coordinator Chris Jennings said that Congress must provide additional funds to the FDA to guarantee the safety and purity of imported drugs (New York Times, 7/20). "[I]f the bill were passed but not funded, it could create serious public health problems," he said (Wall Street Journal, 7/20). Opponents of the drug import bill may also plot to kill the measure in conference. According to Jeffords, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said the proposal "will fade gently into the night" (USA Today, 7/20).