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Canadian Drug Access Gets Bipartisan Support in Senate

Times Staff Writer

Signaling growing support in Congress for allowing Americans to purchase less expensive prescription drugs from other countries, a bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday introduced legislation designed to do just that.

It was the second bill introduced in as many weeks to try to smooth the way for Americans to buy drugs from outside the United States. In addition, the chairman of the Senate’s committee on health issues has committed to introducing his own version of the legislation soon.

The high price of prescription medicine has become a highly contested campaign issue this election year -- particularly among older Americans, who tend to vote in higher numbers than other age groups.

“We’re now well beyond the question of the necessity to allow for safe, regulated drug importation,” said Sen Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a sponsor of the new bill. “A drug can be safe and effective, but what good is it if you can’t afford to take it? It is simply unconscionable that American consumers are subjected to price discrimination.”

Nationwide, Americans angry about high prescription prices are purchasing drugs over the Internet from Canadian pharmacies or organizing drug-buying trips to Canada, where government controls mean that the cost can be 50% lower than at U.S. drugstores.

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At least two U.S. cities have programs for their employees and retirees to buy imported drugs, and the state of Minnesota has set up a website so its residents can order from two Canadian pharmacies inspected by state regulators.

Senate sponsors and staffers predicted that the bill introduced Wednesday -- or some variation of it -- had broad enough support that it probably would come up for a vote this year, despite opposition by the Bush administration and Senate GOP leaders.

“Americans understand fairness, and they know it’s wrong that Americans pay far too much for prescription drugs -- more than Canadians, more than the British, more than in any other country in the world,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The bipartisan legislation would immediately permit individuals to import up to a 90-day supply of a prescription drug from Canada for personal use. It also would allow Americans traveling to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland or any current member of the European Union to bring back a 90-day supply of medicine.

After the bill has been in effect for 90 days, it would allow drug importation by pharmacists and drug wholesalers from Canada and after one year from the current members of the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Switzerland.

Most of the bill’s supporters -- including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota -- are Democrats. The Republican sponsors include Snowe, and Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, disagrees with several aspects of the bipartisan bill and plans to draft his own legislation on the issue, said Gayle Osterberg, the committee’s spokeswoman.

“There are different approaches,” Osterberg said. “But there is broad interest in moving forward on this issue.”

Senate Democrats said that if the leadership did not schedule a vote on the bill this year, they would offer it instead as an amendment to other legislation.

The House passed legislation last July instructing the Food and Drug Administration to set up a program allowing the importation of certain drugs from licensed facilities in specific nations, including Canada, the members of the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. Differences between that bill and any Senate legislation will have to be ironed out by a conference committee.

Neither the Senate bill passed Wednesday nor the earlier House bill permitted the importation of prescription drugs from Mexico.

The Bush administration has steadfastly opposed drug importation, arguing that there would be no way to certify their safety. Representatives of the pharmaceutical industry also oppose the bill, charging that allowing importation would make it easier for counterfeiters to pass off their products as legitimate.

“American patients just won’t know whether or not their medicines are safe,” said Alan F. Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents drug companies.

But the bill’s sponsors said the bill would ensure safety by allowing only drugs approved by the FDA and manufactured in FDA-inspected plants.

Consumer advocates, who have been advocating for access to lower drug prices from abroad, said they hoped the bipartisan bill signals that Congress finally would listen to Americans.

“The consumer anger and angst over the inequities in drug prices are very high,” said Gail Shearer, director of health policy for Consumers Union. “This bill shows that members of both parties really want to solve the problem.”


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