STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Okay. Democrats may have a majority in the Senate, but they did not have the votes for one of their favorite causes. It was a plan to let individuals and wholesalers buy prescription drugs from Canada and other developed countries. That was the plan before the Senate last night, but on a key vote the drug industry got its way instead.
NPR's Julie Rovner has the story.
JULIE ROVNER: For nearly a decade, a group of senators led by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan have been working to open the U.S. borders to lower-cost medicines from Canada and a few other countries.
Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): 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 is not fair.
ROVNER: Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe said the latest version of the bill resolves every potential pitfall that's been raised over the years.
Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): We have addressed every safety concern, Mr. President. We create a regime for tracking the shipments, creating a pedigree, creating a history, FDA approval, inspected and registered.
ROVNER: The Senate took a preliminary vote last week to add Dorgan's amendment to a broader bill that's needed to fund portions of the Food and Drug Administration. Dorgan thought he smelled victory.
Sen. DORGAN: Finally, at last, at long last, I hope this Senate will stand up to the pharmaceutical industry and say this, 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.
ROVNER: But instead, the Senate did something that would make a circus contortionist proud. They passed an amendment to Dorgan's amendment that had the effect of canceling it out. Here's how Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran described his nullification language when he offered it last week.
Senator THAD COCHRAN (Republican, Mississippi): 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 and not harmful for human consumption.
ROVNER: That may not sound like a poison pill, but even if it did survive in the final bill, it would never take effect because Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt has already 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 would never make the certification the Cochran language requires.
Senators did go on to add the Dorgan drug import amendment to the broader FDA bill, but with the Cochran language it's dead in the water. Which raises the question, why did senators vote last week for the import language and yesterday to gut it. Health insurance industry consultant Bob Laszewski says he's got a theory.
Mr. BOB LASZEWSKI (Health Insurance Industry Analyst): A lot of U.S. senators had it both ways. They got to vote for something that was popular and they got to kill its substantively. They voted for it before they voted against it.
ROVNER: Senators may have had substantive concerns or, says Gerard Anderson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health...
Dr. GERARD ANDERSON (Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins University): I mean, the pharmaceutical industry is a major contributor in Congress, and has been for a long period of time.
ROVNER: And the pharmaceutical industry is vehemently opposed to allowing lower-cost drugs from other countries. It's not the first time the Senate has considered relaxing drug import restrictions, and every time Cochran has offered them the same opportunity to appear to be voting one way while actually voting the other. Yesterday was no different.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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