Rx DRUG REIMPORTATION: Popular Bill in Final Stages
While it appears unlikely that legislation for Medicare prescription drug coverage for seniors will come to fruition this fall, legislators are looking to a reimportation measure as an interim solution to the problem of soaring drug costs, the Washington Post reports. An effort to allow Americans to buy U.S.-manufactured drugs from foreign countries at reduced prices began last year when progressive independent Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a bill to overturn a 1988 law allowing only pharmaceutical manufacturers to import and reimport drugs. Legislators from both parties have joined Sanders' effort, facilitating July's overwhelming House approval of two separate amendments to the Agriculture Appropriations Bill that "block funding for FDA enforcement of the ban on drug reimportation." A similar measure then sailed through the Senate's version of the appropriations bill, which included language "requiring the importers to conduct testing and provide documentation about the authenticity of the drugs" (Eilperin, 9/24). With little time left before Congress adjourns, the tension is mounting as Republican negotiators are working to combine the House and Senate versions into a final reimportation provision. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) was one of only a dozen lawmakers who opposed the House-passed proposal to overturn the ban on importing prescription drugs. Thomas said, "Some of us were concerned about safety. But the Senate bill goes a long way in the direction of getting it right." House Republican Whip Tom DeLay (Texas) said of the negotiations, "We're trying to work out some language that takes care of everybody's concerns. Members are working very hard to work something out, and we probably will get something" (Hosler, Baltimore Sun, 9/22).
While Sanders' measure faces little opposition in Congress, he and his colleagues have been battling a destructive ad campaign launched by the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, which ran television commercials in 28 markets in July and is now running a print campaign assailing the bill, featuring full-page ads in 60 newspapers nationwide (Washington Post, 9/24). Sanders and eight other lawmakers struck back last Thursday, sending a letter to PhRMA "insisting that the organization cease its advertising campaign that falsely claims 11 former FDA commissioners oppose legislation to allow the reimportation of FDA safety-approved prescription drugs from other countries." Sanders wrote, "It is one thing for the drug companies to use scare tactics to stop our legislation that would lower prescription drug prices in this country by 30%-50%. But now they have stooped to outright falsehoods. PhRMA's claim that 11 former FDA chiefs oppose our bill is absolutely inaccurate. Former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler, who is one of the most well-respected medical authorities in the world, has specifically said that our bill ... creates no risk to American consumers, yet the industry continues to say he opposes our legislation. The pharmaceutical industry should be ashamed of itself and should take these ads down" (Sanders release, 9/21).
Dissention in the Ranks
Washington Post columnist David Broder suspects that a more subtle force stands in the way of the reimportation bill -- Broder writes that "the hidden significance of the House Republican leadership's delay in naming conferees to negotiate with the Senate on the final terms of the agriculture appropriations bill" is that they aim to effectively defeat the reimportation measure by postponing its approval. Broder asserts that congressional opponents of reimportation fear the bill would have the effect of price controls and writes that "every day that goes by, the pharmaceutical industry's chances of killing [the measure] improve as lawmakers eager to get home for the campaign become more willing to jettison controversial side issues and simply pass the funding bills necessary to keep the government running." He continues, "given the importance of [the prescription drug issue] in the campaign, most Democrats and more than a few Republicans see the [reimportation] measure as a way to provide some short-term financial relief while the parties remain deadlocked over the best way to add a drug benefit for senior citizens" (Broder, Washington Post, 9/24). Meanwhile, FDA officials worry that the price of safely overseeing drug reimportation would be significant -- at $23 million annually for the first two years of planning alone, $46 million for the first year of operations, and $93 million annually seven years into the program. Candidates in northeast states, however, are likely to continue championing the issue by escorting busloads of seniors into Canada, where drugs can be purchased at sharply discounted prices (Washington Post, 9/24).