September 29, 2004The Times joins an increasingly large bandwagon that supports the reimportation of U.S. manufactured drugs from Canada, because Canada's universal health care program has negotiated (or mandated) lower consumer prices for these drugs. Regardless of the politics involved, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has--for years--expressed concerns about the importation of drugs from foreign sources, including the reimportation of U.S. manufactured drugs. (The pharmaceutical industry seems only lately to have jumped on the bandwagon, presumably for their own reasons.) Moreover, Congress has already passed laws allowing for reimportation if the safety concerns can be addressed.
The Senate's Chance on Drug Costs
If Dr. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, knows what's good for the body politic, he will allow a quick floor vote on the drug reimportation bill he has been bottling up for the benefit of President Bush and the pharmaceutical industry. A large majority - up to 75 members, by some estimates - would easily pass the bill and delight the organized older voters who have been clamoring for lower-priced Canadian drugs. American consumers are increasingly aware that their average drug prices are 67 percent higher than what Canadians pay for comparable prescriptions. Bipartisan Senate pressure is growing on Dr. Frist, along with threats of the sort of floor rebellion that saw the Republican House rise up last year to pass a drug reimportation plan over Mr. Bush's opposition.
Mr. Bush continues to express concern about potential safety risks from imported drugs while insisting that the new Medicare subsidy for prescription drugs will eventually ease the pocketbook pain of dissatisfied retirees. Dr. Frist also continues to express concern about the need to weigh the benefits of lower prices against possible safety risks.
But this concern is addressed in the pending bipartisan bill, which mandates that the bargain drugs would come from licensed Canadian pharmacists and wholesalers registered with the federal Food and Drug Administration. [emphasis added.]
If this bill does indeed address the safety concerns, then reimportation may become a viable--and safe--alternative to the high costs of medications in this country. However, setting standards for safety will not be enough if the FDA is not also given adequate funds for inspections and the personnel to conduct them. FDA must also be given authority to prohibit certain pharmacies from doing business with U.S. customers if their activities are deemed unsafe.
The bill in question appears to be S.2137, which has sponsors from both parties and a version of which has already passed the House as HR.2427. S.2137 is called the "Pharmaceutical Access Act of 2003." It has passed on second reading and now sits on the Senate calendar, awaiting action.
The bill lists some interesting findings (note the repetition of findings on safety):
Congress finds that--The purpose of the bill is stated to be:
(1) Americans unjustly pay up to 1000 percent more to fill their prescriptions than consumers in other countries;
(2) the United States is the largest market for pharmaceuticals in the world, yet American consumers pay the highest prices for pharmaceuticals in the world;
(3) an unaffordable drug is neither safe nor effective;
(4) allowing and structuring the importation of prescription drugs ensures access to affordable drugs, thus providing a level of safety to American consumers that consumers do not currently enjoy;
(5) according to the Congressional Budget Office, American seniors alone will spend $1,800,000,000,000 on pharmaceuticals over the next 10 years; and
(6) allowing open pharmaceutical markets could save American consumers at least $635,000,000,000 each year.
(1) to give all Americans immediate relief from the outrageously high cost of pharmaceuticals;
(2) to reverse the perverse economics of American pharmaceutical markets;
(3) to allow the importation of drugs (excluding pharmaceutical narcotics) only if the drugs and the facilities in which the drugs are manufactured are approved by the Food and Drug Administration; and
(4) to require that imported prescription drugs be packaged and shipped using counterfeit-resistant technologies approved by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, similar to the technologies used to secure United States currency.
Another Senate bill (S.2307) on the same subject has only one sponsor (Sen. Grassley) and has been referred to committee. This bill is much broader and includes financial incentives for "taxpayers" not to oppose reimportation from foreign supplies.