Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Senate’s Mixed Message on Drug Reimportation—They Voted For it Before They Voted Against It!

To be completely fair, they actually voted against it before they voted for it but the outcome is the same.

A whole lot of Senators now go down as voting for the ability of drug wholesalers, retailers, and consumers to bring drugs in from industrialized nations where prescription drugs are a lot cheaper. This provision was one that could have really had an impact on drug prices.

While drug reimportation from places like Canada is illegal, it goes on virtually unimpeded everyday as individuals buy small amounts for personal use from online pharmacies.

What made this provision different is that it would have allowed the big prescription drug purchasers—drug wholesalers and retailers like big chain drug stores—to import large quantities of prescription drugs from cheaper markets. That would have likely busted the market open with cheaper drugs and a new level of competition.

The pharmaceutical drug industry argues that would also have opened up a “Pandora’s box” of problems—particularly safety issues—as tons of new and cheaper drugs flooded the market from Europe and Canada.

In response to these concerns, the Senate added a provision that requires the Secretary of HHS to assure the safety of foreign drug supplies. The result is that the final bill is loaded with a "poison pill" that all but guts it.

The Senate has done this before—in fact at least once during the Clinton administration. Back then Donna Shalala wouldn’t certify the safety of drug imports (because she didn’t have the resources to do so) and Mike Leavitt isn’t going to in this administration. So, the bill is meaningless in its current form.

The vote to add the "poison pill" Cochran amendment was 49-40 with the likes of liberal Senator Ted Kennedy somewhat surprisingly voting with the majority to add the "poison pill."

Why did so many Democrats who might have been expected to vote for drug reimportation effectively vote against it?

The answer lies in the primary bill that supporters were using to attach their reimportation amendment to—a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) significant new regulatory powers over how drugs are used and promoted after they go to market.

This FDA bill has been a longtime in coming and is considered vital legislation and groundbreaking—particularly by its Senate cosponsors Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Mike Enzi (R-WY).

With President Bush already saying he would veto the whole FDA bill if a strong drug reimportation provision were added, the “poison pilled” version was the only way that both the important FDA bill would become law and Senators could appear to be supporting cheaper drugs from Canada and Europe.

Of course by voting for the Cochran amendment they really weren’t supporting drug reimportation—just looking like they did.

Hence, they voted for it but not really.

Will prescription drug remimportation be back on the Senate agenda in 2007?

It likely will.

But even if we see a real up or down vote on drug reimportation there is no doubt that President Bush will veto it.

But for now the President is happy with the “poison pilled” version.

He’s for it before he has to be against it.

In Washington, DC, this all really does make a lot of sense!
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