Senate Turns Down Drug Reimportation

Mark Crane

December 15, 2009

December 15, 2009 — The US Senate today turned down a bipartisan amendment to allow the purchase and importation of prescription drugs from other countries.

The amendment to the Senate's healthcare reform package won support from a bare majority of senators, with a vote of 51 in favor and 48 opposed, but 60 votes were necessary under Senate rules for the measure to be enacted.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, the measure's chief sponsor, had argued on the Senate floor that his amendment would allow pharmacies and wholesalers to import prescription drugs from Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Drug prices are far lower there because of government regulations and price controls.

"All we're asking for is fair pricing," he said. "We shouldn't be paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs."

The proposal would save the government $19 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Dorgan estimated that patients would save $80 billion as well. He cited price differences in drugs. Equivalent amounts of Nexium, a heartburn medication, cost $36 in Spain and $424 in the United States, he said.

The amendment was cosponsored by several Republicans including Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who also argued fiercely for the amendment during several days of debate.

Opponents, including Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Delaware, argued that the amendment could allow unsafe, counterfeited drugs to contaminate the US drug supply. "We should make sure that the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] says it's safe before we reimport drugs from other countries," he said in a statement.

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, in a letter to the Senate, warned that her agency is not able to guarantee that drug imports would not be counterfeited or contaminated. The FDA has raised those concerns for years as Congress attempted to allow prescription drug imports.

The issue is complicated because President Obama, who had cosponsored a similar bill when he was in Congress, had reached a deal in which the pharmaceutical industry agreed to contribute $80 billion toward healthcare reform over 10 years in exchange for protection from further cuts.

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