Pre-election conversion?

October 23, 2002

OUT OF THE blue, President Bush revealed himself this week to be a champion of speeding consumer access to lower-cost, generic drugs.

His announcement caught most of Washington by surprise, including lobbyists for the brand-name drugs who considered him an ally. No doubt he was acting on behalf of Republican candidates who were getting beat up on the campaign trail because Congress has failed to address the soaring cost of prescription medicines.

Even so, Mr. Bush's move to limit the tactics pharmaceutical companies can use to keep generic competitors from reaching the market is welcome. He can accomplish even more by backing a Senate-passed bill closing loopholes in patent protections; House Republican leaders have refused to bring it up for a vote.

Congressional leaders in both parties have miscalculated on the drug issue. They put partisan political concerns ahead of serving their constituents, and dueled themselves to a stalemate that only serves the drug companies.

The Republican-led House narrowly approved a sweeping proposal to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. The Senate, under Democratic control, deemed that measure inadequate but was unable to pass an alternative.

A large, bipartisan majority in the Senate voted for the bill easing access to generic drugs. But Mr. Bush opposed it. And the powerful drug lobby had little trouble blocking that measure in the House, where GOP leaders believed they had done enough by passing the Medicare measure that went nowhere.

Now that Congress has gone home to campaign for re-election, the president says he will use executive authority to curb the lawsuits drug companies file to fend off generic competitors to their popular products. His proposal doesn't go as far as the Senate bill and would save consumers less: $3 billion a year, compared with $60 billion over 10 years. But it's a start.

And it could signal an important policy shift. The president implicitly rejected the pharmaceutical companies' argument that any impingement on their enormous profits will discourage the development of potentially life-saving new drugs.

Mr. Bush's change of heart is also a sign that sometimes voters can be heard even over the protests of deep-pocketed lobbies.

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