Poison pill

May 10, 2007

The powerful pharmaceutical industry put a squeeze play on the Senate this week that forced it to drop an opportunity to lower prescription drug prices in order to save sweeping reforms aimed at ensuring drug safety.

As an exercise in legislative tactics, it was brilliant, ruthless - and effective. But it also signaled that the drug industry and its allies will stop at nothing to protect profits, now financed largely by Americans while the rest of the world gets close to a free ride.

Consumer advocates, who thought they were finally on the verge of victory, will have to work even harder next time.

At stake was a measure overwhelmingly approved by the Senate yesterday to strengthen the regulatory powers of the Food and Drug Administration, a complicated package years in the making.

Inspired by the controversy over Vioxx, an arthritis drug allowed to stay on the market for five years even though it doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke, the legislation clarifies the FDA's authority to intercede in such cases, allows the agency to require label changes and conduct post-approval studies, and requires a review of advertising to gauge its accuracy.

During months of Senate review, other provisions were included as well, such as heightened protections for the food supply and a nationwide computer surveillance system to spot problems with medications.

Trouble arose last week, though, when the Senate refused to cut off debate on a proposal to allow Americans to import U.S.-made prescription drugs from Canada and a few other countries with high regulatory standards. The solid display of support prompted a veto threat from the Bush administration, and sent industry allies scrambling.

On Monday, the Senate approved both the reimportation proposal and a provision that effectively voided it by leaving the final decision up to the Bush administration. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chief sponsor of the FDA bill, was among those who voted to void the reimportation proposal for fear of losing the whole reform package.

Some argue that Mr. Kennedy should have called the president's bluff; this veto threat wasn't delivered with anywhere near the vehemence of his opposition to the Iraq spending measure. But the FDA-strengthening bill deserved protection - even if it came at the expense of a long-overdue bid to cut costs.

Reimportation of drugs is not a good solution to the problem of high drug prices in this country. But neither the Bush administration nor the industry has come up with a better alternative.

Both are apparently quite content to have Americans paying more for medicine than anyone else in the world. That attitude won't change until voters make clear that this price gouging will no longer be tolerated.

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