Oh, Canada

July 06, 2005

JUST AS congressional support is building for lifting the ban on importing discount drugs from Canada comes word from north of the border that American buyers may be cut off.

Politicians here say Canadian authorities are being muscled by the pharmaceutical industry, seeking to block discount products from competing in bulk with products it can often sell at full retail price in this country.

That may well be, but piggybacking onto Canadian price controls was never more than a short-term solution for hefty pharmaceutical costs in the United States. The reluctance of Canadian officials to jeopardize their nation's access to affordable drugs should signal policy-makers here that the time has come to let the federal government bargain for discounts directly with manufacturers.

Many more months may pass before American policy-makers act on that signal, though, so thoroughly are they under the thumb of the pharmaceutical industry, which depends on the U.S. market to subsidize its research and the discounts it grants to other countries.

Frustration with the fundamental unfairness of this situation is what prompted Americans to turn to Canada in the first place.

Initially, it was just elderly residents of border states who traveled individually or by the busload to get their prescriptions filled at Canadian pharmacies, where they are 40 percent or more cheaper. Then, a handful of cities and now five states have joined in, setting up Internet shopping networks that allow 2 million Americans to buy their drugs at Canadian discounts.

Not surprisingly, Canadians are balking at taking on the entire American market, and threaten to ban bulk exports when their supplies run low.

Don't blame Canada, though. Blame American lawmakers - especially those who support lifting a ban on imported drugs from Canada as an alternative to letting the federal government negotiate discounts through Medicare.

Perhaps the eye-popping price tag that comes next year with the launching of Medicare's new prescription drug program will convince Congress of its folly in prohibiting Medicare from taking advantage of its vast buying power. Every argument against such a step is pure bunk - except for protecting the drugmakers' profits.

Meanwhile, it's a lovely time of year for a trip up north, eh?

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