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Medicare Nominee to Testify on Pill Imports

March 11, 2004|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — The nominee to run Medicare, with his confirmation stuck on hold, bowed Wednesday to demands he testify about his opposition to the importation of lower-priced medicines.

Mark McClellan, currently commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, will appear before the Senate Commerce Committee today.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, had promised to block a Senate floor vote on McClellan's nomination until he appeared before the committee, of which Dorgan is a member.

The Senate Finance Committee approved McClellan's nomination Tuesday by a vote of 18-2.

"Mark believes he needs to step forward and reverse the trend that puts politics in front of public health," FDA spokesman Peter Pitts said.

Dorgan will decide after the hearing whether to stop blocking the nomination, spokesman Barry Piatt said.

"This isn't about politics. It's about a very serious issue. It's about prescription drug prices," Piatt said.

McClellan also had been tapped to head a task force looking at whether importation could be done safely, but Bill Pierce, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, said McClellan would not lead that study. Some lawmakers had complained that McClellan's outspoken opposition to drug imports meant he could not be an impartial leader.

The Senate must confirm McClellan before he can take the job of administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency that runs the government health insurance programs for nearly 80 million poor, elderly and disabled Americans.

Many Americans have imported medicines from Canada, even though it is illegal, either by crossing the border or through Internet sites.

At his confirmation hearing Monday, McClellan repeated his view that importing medicines posed safety risks. But he promised that the importation task force would take a close look at whether prescription-drug importation could be done safely.

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