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Open Door to Drug Imports

November 06, 2003

In the 2002 election cycle, the U.S. drug industry gave political candidates nearly $30 million. For the 2004 cycle it has already spent more than $3 million, two-thirds of it on GOP members of Congress. The industry is getting a good return on its money. Bush administration officials and sympathetic legislators are still trying to add a $400-billion drug benefit to Medicare that prohibits, not just omits, cost controls. House and Senate conferees have proposed forbidding the federal government to negotiate better prices, as such countries as Canada and agencies as the Department of Veterans Affairs do.

The glimmer of good news is that at least one consumer-friendly reform may survive. The conferees, pressured by state and local leaders, last week began considering an amendment to let consumers buy drugs directly and more cheaply from Canada.

The Bush administration and most legislators on the conference committee, including some Democrats, say it is dangerous to legalize drug purchases from Canada. They echo Food and Drug Administration head Mark B. McClellan's line that the agency can't guarantee the safety of drugs that aren't manufactured, stored and distributed under FDA guidelines. McClellan says he fears tampering by shippers as well. Canada, however, has one of the world's most stringent pharmaceutical quality oversight systems. As for adulteration in shipping, that can happen in any mail-order operation.

Californians are right to ask why importation from Mexico, which also has lower prices than the U.S., was excluded. Legislators argue that Mexico's prescription drug oversight is too lax, but it's also because strong proponents of drug importation -- Reps. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) -- are in states closer to Canada.

A temporary solution, which the Canada measure would be, is better than no solution. Plenty of individuals and even municipalities are already importing from Canada, mostly over the Internet. Legalizing the practice would allow for better safety regulations.

On Tuesday, two top negotiators on the conference committee, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), said the Medicare drug benefit was "on life support," imperiled by partisan disagreements. That's good news, because the bill would create a gigantic, cost-ineffective benefit shaped behind closed conference doors.

Regional leaders whose budgets are being busted by drug prices -- including Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, both Republicans -- are pressuring the conferees to pass the Canada measure even if a larger Medicare drug benefit dies. As Pawlenty recently framed the issue: "There's a rebellion brewing across America. It is the prescription drug equivalent of the Boston Tea Party."

To Take Action: Thomas is the most powerful Californian on the conference committee. Reach him at (202) 225-2915 or send an e-mail by visiting www.house.gov/writerep.

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