The least Congress could do

October 06, 2006

Republican lawmakers headed home from Washington this week bragging to constituents of enacting legislation that, in the words of New York Rep. John M. McHugh, "can help lower prescription drug costs for millions of Americans."

Which is true - if millions of Americans take their prescriptions to Canada and bring back the drugs in no greater quantity than a three-month supply.

Even with election-year pressure bearing down on Congress, lawmakers were unable to strike more than a token blow against the pharmaceutical industry lobby that uses its political heft to maintain artificially high drug prices in this country.

Tens of millions of Americans, including all those on Medicare, could have lower drug bills if the U.S. government were allowed to do what Canada does: negotiate with the pharmaceutical manufacturers for bulk discounts.

Canadian prices for U.S.-made drugs are 30 percent to 40 percent cheaper because American consumers subsidize them. The Bush administration and the Republican-led Congress have refused to correct that absurdity because it would cut too deeply into industry profits.

Buying prescription medicine through Canada is a last-resort, desperation measure employed increasingly over recent years by busloads of senior citizens and even some state and local governments seeking to evade the inequity of federal law.

The approach has many drawbacks - not the least of which is that it evades U.S. regulators charged with ensuring drug quality and safety. Yet for Americans with chronic ailments who need to take expensive drugs every day and don't have insurance to help, getting prescriptions filled in Canada makes a lot of sense - particularly if Internet and mail-order sales are permitted.

The Bush administration clamped down last year on even that outlet, though, directing customs agents to seize drugs at the border and interdict purchases through the mail. That interdiction policy was suddenly dropped this week, but reimportation of medicine remains illegal.

All Congress did was order customs agents to back off if American citizens are carrying small quantities of legally prescribed medicines for personal use.

It was the least the lawmakers could do - the absolute least.

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