Senators try to salvage drug re-import legislation

Bipartisan bid to legalize medicines from Canada

October 30, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - With passage of a Medicare drug-subsidy bill uncertain at best, a bipartisan group of senators wants to ensure the survival of a piece of the legislation that would legalize prescription drug purchases from Canada.

The group, led by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat; Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat; and Republican John McCain of Arizona, has introduced legislation that would allow consumers, pharmacists and wholesalers to buy or "re-import" American-made drugs from Canada and 24 other countries.

Drugs from Canada are up to 80 percent cheaper than those sold in the United States.

The new Senate bill is identical to a version that passed the House of Representatives. Unlike Senate terms included in the stalled Medicare drug-subsidy bill, the new measure doesn't require the approval of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

Previous HHS secretaries, alleging possible health risks from imported drugs, have refused to endorse similar legislation.

Dorgan said the new bill will pressure House and Senate negotiators on the Medicare drug-subsidy legislation, who overwhelmingly oppose re-importation, not to drop the re-import terms from their final draft.

"We just want to keep this in play in the conference. Those of us who support re-importation as a way to put downward pressure on drug prices are continuing to push in every direction," Dorgan said.

The Food and Drug Administration, the White House and the drug industry oppose widespread re-importation on the grounds that foreign drugs might be unapproved, unsafe or counterfeit. They also might not be distributed, stored, shipped or labeled under FDA safety guidelines.

Stabenow said concerns about the safety of foreign drugs could be addressed with FDA regulations. She said a well-regulated re-importation system is better than having consumers, especially seniors, do without expensive medications or buy them on the Internet from unlicensed providers.

"It is critical right now for our seniors to find some way to get the drugs they need," Stabenow said.

A growing number of cities and states - Boston being the latest - are exploring plans to purchase medications from Canada for their government employees. FDA officials say the agency has no plans to stop those programs, but it will try to shut down their Canadian drug supplies.

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