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Lawmakers playing catchup on cheaper foreign drug sales, retirees say

A U.S. House bill that allows importing less costly drugs from Canada and Europe doesn't impress bay area residents.

KRIS HUNDLEY and SUZANNE SATALINE
Published July 30, 2003

Just before 3 a.m. Friday, a bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives bucked a torrent of lobbying by drugmakers, the Food and Drug Administration and the Bush administration to pass a bill that gives Americans the go-ahead to import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and Europe.

Winifred McConnell of Clearwater was not impressed.

"I think they're a little late," said the 83-year-old retiree, who has been buying her drugs from Canada for about a year, saving hundreds of dollars. "As long as the Canadian company does a good job and their prices are better, I'm going to do business with them."

Florida, with its large population of seniors, has become a hotbed of Canadian drug importing, a gray market business now estimated at about $700-million a year. In addition to orders placed directly over the Internet, Florida seniors looking for an alternative to high-priced U.S. medicines have been lining up at dozens of storefront operations that place orders with Canadian pharmacies.

The House's 243 to 186 vote to allow individuals as well as pharmacies to import drugs from Canada and other countries was a shocker - for its last-minute timing and its surprising victory over powerful forces including the House's own leadership.

For all the theatrics, the bill is anything but a sure thing.

The import issue will be reviewed in September by a House-Senate conference committee that's been charged with hashing out versions of a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Many senior senators, including Democrats Bob Graham of Florida and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, have said they would not support a law that allows drug imports without direct oversight from the federal government. And Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson has said it would be impossible to guarantee consumer safety under terms of the bill.

The bill passed by the House would legalize importing FDA-approved drugs manufactured at FDA-approved labs. It calls for special counterfeit-resistant packaging, a step that should not be a problem, said Andy Troszok of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association.

"We're willing to work with the U.S. government to enhance the level of safety," he said. "But there hasn't been one case of counterfeit drugs coming from Canada."

Republicans and Democrats - including several who favor legalizing drug imports from Canada - said the House bill provided no assurances of safety or authenticity.

"I have voted in the past to grant Americans access to Canadian drugs that have been certified for safety, but I had to vote against" the new legislation, Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, said in a statement. "The bill did not require testing for the authenticity and effectiveness of imported drugs."

But the House bill gained backing among other members in both parties.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who won permission from House leaders to bring the measure to a vote, said her elderly mother-in-law spends as much as $1,000 a month on prescription medicines. Rep. Dan Burton, (R-Ind.), another supporter, said he was angry that his wife's tamoxifen, the breast cancer drug, cost $360 a month in this country and $60 a month in Germany.

U.S. consumers pay the highest drug prices in the world, while prices in other countries are held in check by government price controls. The House bill estimated that widespread drug importation could reduce average drug prices in the United States by 35 percent and drug spending by $635-million over 10 years.

Last year, average drug prices in the United States were 67 percent higher than those in Canada and about twice those of Italy and France, according to a report by the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board, a Canadian health agency.

Drugmakers say such prices are necessary to support research and development that will yield the next generation of life-saving medicines. Manufacturers say the House's action could destroy the industry's carefully constructed worldwide pricing system.

The drug industry's trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has urged Congress to pass a Medicare drug benefit and to work to remove foreign governments' price controls on drugs.

"Foreign governments' policies that lead to free-riding on American consumers and reduce the pace of development of new medicines are not acceptable," said Alan Holmer, the trade group's head.

While politicians debate reimportation and drugmakers raise the specter of dangerous counterfeit medicines and dramatic cuts in research, U.S. consumers seem largely indifferent to the controversy.

Rose Fellig, who helps seniors in Pasco County obtain Canadian drugs, said a few of her customers this week have mentioned the congressional action as their reason for visiting her storefront operation in Bayonet Point.

But the 1,200 customers who have used her services over the past five months haven't been stopped by legalities.

"These people don't know if it's illegal or not," said Fellig, who has been getting her own drugs from Canada for nearly a year. "They know they're saving quite a bit of money and that's the bottom line. They need the meds."

- Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or 727 892-2996.

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