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221 House members push for vote on drug importation bill

Published May 27, 2005

WASHINGTON - A majority of House members want to consider allowing Americans to import lower-cost prescription drugs from other countries despite fierce opposition from President Bush, the Food and Drug Administration and drugmakers.

The 221 Republicans and Democrats on Thursday sent a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, asking him to schedule a vote on a drug importation bill.

"No longer are supporters of prescription drug reimportation a few lonely voices out in the wilderness," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Crystal River. "The whole nation can now hear our voices, and hear us loud and clear."

With its large population of seniors, Florida has become home to an increasing amount of Canadian drug importing, a business estimated at more than $700-million a year.

Floridians can access Canadian pharmacies directly, by Internet or phone, and through dozens of storefront operations that place orders with Canadian pharmacies.

Peggy Emhardt, owner of Spring Hill's Discount Canadian Direct, which helps people order drugs from Canada, said a law would help her 4,000 customers get more for their money.

"It would give the individual consumer the latitude to do comparison shopping globally," she said. "It would give them the best bang for their buck."

The House overwhelmingly passed a bill in 2003 to allow individuals and pharmacies to import drugs from Canada and other countries, but the Senate never acted.

In the months after the vote, dozens of states, counties and municipalities proposed or implemented their own drug importation programs in the absence of federal action.

Importation has been endorsed by consumer groups, pharmacies and advocacy organizations, but critics worry legislation could allow unsafe drugs into the United States.

Canada has long offered inexpensive brand-name drugs because its national health service negotiates deep discounts from manufacturers.

U.S. law prohibits importing drugs from sources that have not been inspected by the FDA, and the FDA says it lacks the money to expand its inspection program.

Four bills have been introduced in the House and Senate since January, and legislators say there is more momentum then ever before to pass something this year.

"This letter may provide the momentum needed to move this legislation through not only the House, but the Senate as well," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La, a bill sponsor. "It's time for action. America's seniors demand legislative action to lower their drug costs."

The bills generally would, for the first time, legalize individual consumers' importation of certain prescription drugs for personal use, and would include new requirements to promote the safety of domestic and imported drugs, such as mandatory counterfeit-proof packaging.

Brown-Waite was the only member from the Tampa Bay area to sign the letter.

Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, said he supports drug importation as long as some safety measures are put in place.

Other Floridians include Democrat Reps. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Alcee Hastings of Miramar and Republican Rep. John Mica of Winter Park.

Hastert's office did not return calls for comment.

[Last modified May 27, 2005, 10:25:02]

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