Senate Set to Vote on Drug-Import Bill
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And I'm Rebecca Roberts. The Senate today considers a plan that could allow people to have prescription drugs shipped to them from other countries. This is not the first time Congress is taking up expanded imports. The battle over expanding drug importation has always turned on two issues: lower prices and safety.
NPR's Joe Neel says that that will be true again today.
JOE NEEL: Over the last decade or so, consumers have been buying cheaper drugs from Canada and other countries online. The FDA frowns on such purchases and the government has the power to seize those drugs. Critics of expanding importation say drugs in other countries may not be safe.
Billy Tauzin is a former congressman who's now head of the drug trade group PhRMA. He helped write the current law restricting imports. He told the Senate hearing in March that liberalizing drug imports would be a big mistake.
Mr. BILLY TAUZIN (Former Democratic Representative, Louisiana's 3rd Congressional District; President and Chief Executive Officer, PhRMA): Open those borders, take our closed regulatory system and open it up to those drugs, that's what the FDA is trying to tell you would be a serious mistake for consumers in America. That's the life or death decisions we have to make here.
NEEL: At that same hearing, Randall Lutter of the FDA said consumers buying drugs over the Internet are getting counterfeits that contain inactive or harmful ingredients.
Mr. RANDALL LUTTER (Co-chair, Nanotechnology Task Force, Food and Drug Administration): The Internet today has created extraordinary unregulated marketplace for the sale of unapproved drugs, prescription drugs dispensed without avail of prescription, and products marketed with fraudulent health claims.
NEEL: Though the FDA says the drugs sometimes can be harmful, it can't say how often that happens. Reports of injuries related to imports are relatively rare. As Lutter told the Senate panel, the FDA doesn't have a good handle on what's coming in over the borders.
Mr. LUTTER: We wish we had statistics on that. We do not. It's very difficult for us actually to count the volume of the drugs coming in at the border because we don't always know what parcels are containing pharmaceutical products.
NEEL: Their best guess is that 25 million prescriptions were entering the country in 2004. Americans consumed nearly four billion prescriptions a year. Some surveys conducted by the FDA and customs suggest that a significant proportion of current imports have problems. Some of these are minor, but others are significant and pose a danger. But again, there are no firm data on how often problems arise. Supporters of expanding importation thinks safety can be guaranteed.
Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, is one of the sponsors of the plan to be voted on today.
Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): The legislation that I have offered would make the supply of prescription drugs in this country and the supply that would come into this country much, much, much safer.
NEEL: The plan would regulate foreign drug exporters. It would allow U.S. consumers, pharmacies, and drug wholesalers to buy drugs and have them shipped to the U.S. from 19 trusted countries; including Canada, Japan, and parts of Europe. Only FDA-approved drugs would be permitted. FDA inspectors would visit foreign pharmacies 12 times a year. Dorgan says the goal is to lower prices.
Sen. DORGAN: My goal is not to force Americans to go to Canada to purchase prescription drugs, but rather to create a little competition in the marketplace so that we can put real downward pressure on domestic drug prices.
NEEL: How much competition would spring up is unclear. Business at Canadian Internet pharmacies dropped by half last year when American seniors got a drug benefit in Medicare. Many sites went out of business. Also, prices on generic drugs are falling considerably in the U.S. in the past year, and Canadian drug prices aren't always lower than the U.S.
Senator Mike Enzi is a Wyoming Republican.
Senator MIKE ENZI (Republican, Wyoming): Just because you heard that everything is cheaper in Canada, doesn't mean that it is.
NEEL: The FDA's Randall Lutter says a recent border survey showed that in many cases, people are paying more for shipping than they would have paid for a generic at a local pharmacy.
The White House has threatened a veto of expanded drug imports, but that might not be necessary. The Senate will also consider today an amendment that would keep things the way they are. Current law allows Americans to buy a 90-day supply of prescription drugs in Canada, but only if they travel there and bring it back themselves.
Joe Neel, NPR News, Washington.