“Off-the-Rails Drug Policy”

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Los Angeles Times

The journey of the “Rx Express,” a train that made its way from San Diego to Vancouver last week, was a made-for-TV news event, adding a little color to the growing revolt against the government’s refusal to let U.S. consumers legally buy prescription drugs from abroad.

Trains and buses full of mostly seniors intent on buying sacks of lower-priced Canadian drugs are becoming almost commonplace. So are state legislatures defying federal law to help their residents order drugs from across the border through the mail. This craziness continues because Congress and the Bush administration are paralyzed by the lobbying power of pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) are the latest victims of this inability to act. S 2328, their modest effort to allow limited re-importation of certain drugs, is about to be smothered by a substitute measure that merely fakes loosening the ban. None of this would be occurring if the United States, like Canada and most other developed countries, bargained with drug makers for lower prices. But it doesn’t, so U.S. prices are on average the world’s highest.

The alternative that some administration officials are pushing is S 2493, by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Gregg’s bill “a sham” that would obstruct the drug importation it purports to allow. Its requirements for licensing and record-keeping alone would be nearly impossible to meet.

Last week’s Rx Express may have been just another hokey media event, but anger at unfair drug pricing isn’t going to go away. On Aug. 10, Vermont announced it would sue the federal Food and Drug Administration for rejecting its pilot program to import prescription drugs from Canada. On Aug. 19, Illinois’ Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced the start of a state program to help import low-cost drugs from Europe. And last week, the California Assembly approved legislation authorizing the state to buy cheaper drugs from Canada for the prison system and other state agencies. A group of California pharmacies took a different tack, suing more than a dozen drug makers for allegedly conspiring to keep U.S. drug prices inordinately high.

Even the president’s brother Jeb, governor of Florida, recently withdrew his proposal to close 12 drug re-importation businesses after seniors in his state demanded that he cut it out.

The bill by Dorgan and Snowe isn’t perfect. One of its provisions — forbidding drug company price retaliation against those who export and import — is a little too close to price fixing. But it’s an amendable problem. It pales when compared with the frustration of seniors who have given up on being law-abiding because the law makes no sense.

Consumer Watchdog
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