Backers of a bill that would allow consumers and wholesalers to buy prescription drugs from Canada and other developed countries suffered another blow from the Senate on Monday night.
For nearly a decade, a group of senators led by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan has worked to open U.S. borders to lower-cost medicines from Canada and other countries.
"The question is this: Should the American people be paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs? And the answer is no. It's not fair," Dorgan said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) said the latest version of the bill resolves every potential pitfall that has been raised over the years.
"We have addressed every safety concern," Snowe said. "We created a regime for tracking the shipments, creating a pedigree, creating a history, FDA approval."
The Senate took a preliminary vote last week to add Dorgan's amendment to a broader bill that is needed to fund portions of the Food and Drug Administration. Dorgan thought victory was within reach.
"Finally, this Senate will stand up to the pharmaceutical industry and say: 'You're a good industry; we appreciate what you do; we like life-saving drugs. But life-saving drugs save no lives if you can't afford to take them,' " Dorgan said.
The Senate, however, passed an amendment to Dorgan's amendment, essentially cancelling it.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) led the way.
"The purpose of this amendment is to require, before importation can be undertaken, a certification by the secretary of Health and Human Services that the importation of the drug will indeed have an economic benefit and that it is safe."
But HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt has said he does not believe opening the U.S. drug-distribution system to products from other countries would be safe or cost-effective, so he isn't likely to make the certification outlined by Cochran.
Industry experts said senators proved their loyalty to business by voting for import language last week and then gutting it Monday night.
"The pharmaceutical industry is a major contributor in Congress and has been for a long period of time," said Gerard Anderson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The pharmaceutical industry is vehemently opposed to allowing lower-cost drugs from other countries.