Senate kills chance for drug imports

A safety certification requirement is the "poison pill" for drug-imports legislation.

Published May 8, 2007

WASHINGTON - Prescription drug prices in the United States probably will remain among the highest in the world.

Overseas, brand-name prescription drugs can cost two-thirds less than they do in the United States. In many industrialized countries, prices are lower because they are either controlled or partially controlled by government regulation.

Lawmakers have pushed for years to allow drug imports, saying they would drive down prices in the United States. Experts disagree by just how much, but consumers won't have a chance to find out: The Senate killed a bid Monday to allow competition from lower-priced imports.

In a triumph for the pharmaceutical industry, the Senate, on a 49-40 vote, neutralized the latest push.

The measure required the administration to certify the safety and effectiveness of drugs before they can be brought into the country. That's something officials have said they cannot do.

"Well, once again the big drug companies have proved that they are the most powerful and best financed lobby in Washington, " said Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican.

The vote nullified a second amendment, later passed on a voice vote, that would legalize the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan and New Zealand.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called the certification amendment, introduced by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a "poison pill" for the drug-imports legislation. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., acknowledged that it nullified his bid to allow the purchase of drugs abroad.

"This is a setback for us. But the drug industry is one of the strongest industries in this town, " Dorgan said.

Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, said the requirement for a safety certification was essential to protect the public.

The idea of allowing prescription drug imports enjoys broad popular support. However, lower prices overseas would not automatically translate into large savings for domestic consumers, according to a 2004 study by the Congressional Budget Office.

The study found that allowing drug imports from a broad set of countries would cut U.S. drug spending by $40-billion over 10 years, about a 1 percent savings.

The maneuvering occurred on broader legislation to renew the FDA's ability to collect fees from the drug industry to defray the cost of reviewing new drugs. The Senate is expected to finish work on the FDA drug safety bill later this week. Similar drug-import legislation is pending in the House.

Fast Facts:


How they voted

On the 49-40 roll call vote, a "yes" was a vote to adopt the safety and effectiveness certification requirement, effectively killing the drive to allow prescription drug importation, and a "no" was a vote to defeat it.

- Mel Martinez, R-Fla., yes

- Bill Nelson, D-Fla., no