Health Issues Surface as Congress Heads Home

As Congress prepares for a recess to go campaigning, a number of lingering health issues are making an appearance, including laws regarding interstate abortions and cross-border prescription drug traffic.

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This is the week that Congress wants to get out of Washington. Lawmakers want to go home to campaign. On their way out the door they have made headlines on national security issues. But as the election approaches they have also suddenly rediscovered the hot-button issue of healthcare.

NPR's Julie Rovner has this report.

JULIE ROVNER: It's a mark of how little the 109th Congress has to show on healthcare that one of the signal achievements simply restores what used to be the status quo. For years, customs officials simply looked the other way when Americans returned from Canada with medications they'd purchased at that country's government-controlled prices. But last year, says Missouri Republican Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson, something changed.

Representative JO ANN EMERSON (Republican, Missouri): Customs and Border Patrol has been seizing some drugs on these buses that take senior citizens across the Canadian border to pick up their drugs at those lower cost pharmacies.

ROVNER: Emerson's long been a champion of making it easier for Americans to buy cheaper drugs from other countries. Last summer she managed to attach an amendment on the subject to the spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Customs and Border Protection Agency.

Her original language, passed by both the House and Senate, would have ordered Customs to stop seizing medications, both drugs sent by mail and those carried back in person. The drug industry, the Bush administration and some lawmakers objected. They oppose any so-called drug re-importation, opening the borders to drugs not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

In the end, Emerson compromised. She agreed to language allowing only medications carried back by the patient, not by mail, and only from Canada.

Rep. EMERSON: We needed to get our foot in the door and just incrementally move re-importation along. And because these are senior citizens who are living on a fixed income who have already paid for their drugs, to have them seized is ridiculous. So that's all that we'll accomplish with this amendment to the Homeland Security bill, but it is a good first step.

ROVNER: Final votes on the Homeland Security spending bill are expected later this week. Meanwhile, the House yesterday revisited another issue it likes to take up just before elections: abortion.

Specifically, the House basically re-passed a bill it already passed once this Congress aimed at making it harder for teenage girls to get abortions without their parents' knowledge. Part of the bill would make it a crime to take a minor across state lines for an abortion if the girl's home state has a law requiring her parents be notified or give consent. Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner said it would protect girls from those who would exploit them.

Representative JAMES SENSENBRENNER (Republican, Wisconsin): This provision will prevent abusive boyfriends and older men, who may have committed rape, from pressuring young girls into receiving secret out-of-state abortions to keep the abusers' sexual crimes hidden from authorities.

ROVNER: The other part of the bill would require abortion providers, even in states without parental involvement laws, to nonetheless notify parents at least 24 hours before providing an abortion to a minor from another state. Opponents of the measure, like New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, said the bill goes too far.

Representative JERROLD NADLER (Democrat, New York): Not since the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 have we used the power of the federal government to enforce the laws of one state on the territory of another.

ROVNER: The bill passed 264 to 153, but it's unclear what happens next. The Senate in July passed a bill that includes the sections making it a crime to take a minor to another state for an abortion, but not the parts requiring doctors to notify parents. For the Senate to address something so contentious in the few remaining days of this session seems unlikely.

Even non-contentious items could fall victim to the crowded schedule. The House this week is also considering sweeping bi-partisan legislation that would, for the first time in 13 years, reorganize the popular National Institutes of Health. But it seems unlikely the Senate will even get to that before the election.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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