Is Congress Putting Profits Ahead Of Patients?

Is Congress Putting Profits Ahead Of Patients?

By Mary Johnson
Congress recently voted to bar seniors from legally saving money on more affordable prescription drugs imported from nations where they are sold for much less.  Although many seniors continue to mail-order prescription drugs through Canadian drug stores where prescription meds are less expensive, the practice is technically illegal.  In recent years, the U.S. government has seized thousands of shipments of prescriptions bound for seniors struggling to stretch their scarce retirement incomes.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers and their allies charge that reimportation would expose consumers to unsafe drugs, and would hurt research and development of new lifesaving ones.  But drug makers stand to lose billions if reimportation becomes law, because many drugs cost so much less in other nations.

Particularly galling is the fact that at least two bills to legalize the reimportation of prescription drugs have already been signed into law since 2000.  Each time, implementation of the legislation was scuttled by a myriad of loopholes and provisions inserted with the full support of the pharmaceutical industry.

Each time, the legislation required the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to certify that the drugs were safe and would significantly reduce costs for consumers.  The HHS Secretary in both Clinton and Bush Administrations said they could not do so.  Opponents of reimportation successfully used the ploy again in recent legislation that passed in the Senate, thus barring any change.

TSCL has been fighting to allow reimportation ever since the 2000 legislation failed in its promise, making it the first seniors organization to do so.  In 2003, TSCL lobbied for legislation sponsored by Representatives Jo Ann Emerson (MO), Rahm Emanuel (IL), and Gil Gutknecht (MN) that would have allowed the importation of FDA-approved drugs from 25 industrialized nations.  In an upset vote against the pharmaceutical industry, the House approved the 2003 reimportation bill 243-186 after lawmakers in both parties grew nervous over criticism that they were putting profits ahead of patients.  When the House voted to allow reimportation, 53 senators signed a letter opposing the legislation.  The New York Times reported that the Pharmaceutical and Manufacturers Association helped coordinate the signature campaign, detailing the great lengths to which drug makers went in order to defeat the 2003 House bill.

The vote on reimportation is not over and sponsors of the legislation have said they will continue to push forward.  TSCL continues to lobby for The Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act of 2007 introduced in the Senate (S. 242) by Senator Byron Dorgan (ND), and in the House (H.R. 380) by Representative Rahm Emanuel (IL).  We encourage you to contact your Members of Congress and voice your support for these bills.  And please let them know whose interests you think they should be putting first.

Sources:  "Senate Approves Prescription Drug User Fee Act," Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, May 10, 2007.  "Sponsors of Bill to Allow Importation of Prescription Drugs Predict Victory," Mary Agnes Carey, Congressional Quarterly, July 25, 2003.

"House Oks Importation of Lower-Cost Drugs," David Espo, The Associated Press, July 25, 2003. "Drug Lobby Pushed Letter By Senators On Medicare," Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times, July 30, 2003.

August 2007