MELISSA BLOCK, host:
As we just heard, one of the issues that divides Democrats in the health care bill involves prescription drug imports. An amendment would allow pharmacies and wholesalers to buy lower cost drugs from other countries. It's an idea that President Obama supported when he was Senator Obama. But now, some Democrats fear the amendment could undermine an agreement the White House negotiated with drug companies.
NPR's David Welna explains.
DAVID WELNA: Independent Senator Bernie Sanders is normally opposed to what he calls unfettered free trade. But when it comes to prescription drugs such as the cholesterol-lowering statin Lipitor, the self-described socialist from Vermont is all for letting U.S. firms import Lipitor from countries where it sells at much lower prices.
Senator BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): In Canada, it costs $33; France, $53; Germany, $48; Netherlands, 63; Spain, 32; the United Kingdom, 40; USA, $125 - four times as much as it costs in Canada. Now, you explain that to me.
WELNA: Sanders is one of many in the Senate Democratic caucus who, along with several Republicans, are backing the drug importation amendment sponsored by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan.
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg wrote several senators, saying she commends the efforts Dorgan's made to reduce risks associated with importing prescription drugs. Still, she concluded his measure has too many unresolved safety issues. Dorgan insists those issues have been dealt with.
Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): We don't allow drugs to be imported from China or India as a matter of this amendment, only FDA-approved drugs from FDA inspected plants in Canada, the European countries, Japan, New Zealand or Australia. That's all. Why? Because they have an identical chain of custody to us, and that's the basis on which we determine how re-importation could work and could work safely.
WELNA: Dorgan's reassurances haven't swayed skeptics.
Senator ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): That is a gamble we cannot afford to take. We shouldn't have to wonder what's in the bottle.
WELNA: That's Robert Menendez, another Senate Democrat. His state of New Jersey is home to several big drug manufacturers, and he's leading the effort to block Dorgan's amendment.
Sen. MENENDEZ: We are attacking the one last major research and manufacturing entity here in the United States. I don't want to offshore those jobs abroad to allow contaminated and counterfeit prescription drugs to come into this country.
WELNA: Other Democrats consider Dorgan's amendment a threat to their health care bill. That's because they fear it could blow up a deal with drug company lobbyist PhRMA.
Here's how it worked: PhRMA agreed to absorb $80 billion in fees and discounts over the next decade to help bring down the cost of a health care bill, which would bring PhRMA many new customers.
Arizona Republican John McCain says that's what really explains why the FDA opposes this measure.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): If the Dorgan amendment passes, then the agreement, the well-publicized agreement between PhRMA and the White House, is knocked out. And they are deeply concerned about the consequences of that.
WELNA: Repeated attempts to force a vote on Dorgan's amendment have failed.
Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, who opposes the measure, confirmed that it's being blocked.
Senator TOM CARPER (Democratic, Delaware): There are several holds on the amendment. And I'm not in a position to say who - I know who has at least three. But I don't know who has them all.
WELNA: Even senators who've long supported importing cheaper drugs are torn over Dorgan's amendment, including the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Many of us support it but wonder if this is the right venue. And it's become - there's a political subtext here that goes beyond the merits of the bill. And we don't want to slow down this bill or stop it.
WELNA: The political subtext, Durbin added, is that keeping the money-saving deal with PhRMA intact may be a higher priority than risking that the drug import measure passes and scuttles that deal.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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