Passage of Drug Import Bill Seen as Inevitable

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration’s top healthcare official said Tuesday that passage of legislation allowing prescription drugs to be imported was inevitable, despite strong opposition from the White House and most congressional Republicans.

The statement by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson fell short of an endorsement of imported drugs, and he downplayed the potential savings for U.S. consumers.

Administration officials were quick to scale back Thompson’s remarks.

But his comment, made during a news conference with reporters from regional newspapers, reflected the growing public demand for cheaper prescription drugs -- and the political momentum that has been building for months to make it legal to import drugs.


As many as 2 million Americans bought U.S.-made prescription drugs from Canada last year, at savings of up to 70%. An expanding group of governors, mayors and lawmakers has been pressuring the Bush administration to make the practice legal.

The administration has based its opposition on safety concerns, saying there is no way to guarantee purity once medications left the United States.

Recognizing the populist potential of the issue, some Democrats -- including Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee -- have tried to portray that opposition as evidence of President Bush’s ties to U.S. drug manufacturers.

The pharmaceutical industry strongly opposes drug importation, citing the safety issue and contending that lower prices would mean a reduction in companies’ funding for the research and development of new drugs.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) seized on Thompson’s comments Tuesday.

“Secretary Thompson is right that the American people are demanding access to drugs at the same fair prices available to Canadians and Europeans,” Kennedy said in a statement. “But passage of a real program will continue to be an uphill battle as long as President Bush stands with the pharmaceutical industry against American patients.”

Administration officials reiterated their concerns Tuesday about the safety of imported drugs, and sought to shift attention to the Medicare discount drug card.


This is the first week that Medicare beneficiaries can sign up for the card, which can be used next month.

Thompson “just talked about the inevitability of this passing Congress, not whether we would support it,” Health and Human Services spokesman Bill Pierce said. “This does not represent a change in policy.”

Unlike importing prescription drugs, which might be “somewhere down the road,” the Medicare drug discount card is “right now,” Pierce said. “Starting June 1, seniors are going to be able to take their cards and save money.”

White House officials declined to speculate whether Bush would sign drug importation legislation into law.

“The president’s focus is on making sure that seniors and all Americans have the safest drugs available and have them made affordable as possible,” said White House spokesman Trent A. Duffy. The Food and Drug Administration “has said [importation] cannot be done safely, and that remains a concern,” he said.

“It’s one thing if you get a Kool-Aid recipe wrong. It’s another thing if you get someone’s prescription drugs wrong.”


The House last year passed a bill making it legal to import drugs, but the Senate never took the issue up.

In the end, Congress added a provision to the Medicare prescription drug law that required Thompson’s department to study the issue and report back.

Thompson responded by creating a 13-member task force. The panel, which will hold its fifth meeting today, has a Dec. 1 deadline. Thompson has said he hopes to submit its recommendations to Congress this summer.

“The task force is in place,” Duffy said. “That’s the process that Congress put in place to assess what [legal importation] would take, whether it is feasible and ultimately whether it is safe for the American consumer to do this.”

Thompson said Tuesday that the legalization of drug imports would help Americans save money on prescription drugs, but not as much as they would think.

He said that ensuring safety would require increased inspections and regulation by the FDA, and that the added costs of those procedures could cut into consumers’ savings.


The Congressional Budget Office also says imported drugs would produce minimal savings.

In a report issued last week, the agency said that the limited availability of drugs for import, added insurance costs and other economic factors would result in savings of about $40 billion over 10 years in U.S. drug spending, or about 1%.

“Permitting importation only from Canada would produce a negligible reduction in drug spending,” the report concluded.

Duffy said Bush was committed to ensuring that Medicare’s 41 million elderly and disabled beneficiaries took advantage of the drug discount card, which administration officials said would help seniors save from 10% to 25% on their drug costs until the Medicare drug benefit takes effect in 2006.

But the administration’s efforts to promote the drug discount card, as well as the overall Medicare reform bill, have been criticized by Democratic lawmakers and consumer advocates.

Critics say enrollment is confusing and that savings fall short of the discounts seniors can get from buying drugs in Canada or over the Internet.

On Monday, the administration’s toll-free information line about the discount card, 1-800-MEDICARE, logged 407,000 calls, Pierce said. That broke the line’s previous record of 112,000 calls, which was set last week.


“That gives you an indication that people are interested, and that they want answers,” Pierce said.