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Senate votes to allow drug importation from Canada

Medicare bill debated

From Steve Turnham
CNN Washington Bureau

The cost of prescription drugs has become a big concern for many of America's seniors.
The cost of prescription drugs has become a big concern for many of America's seniors.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate on Friday passed a measure that would allow U.S. pharmacies to import lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada and sell them to consumers here.

The measure's backers say it would save billions of dollars, but the pharmaceutical industry say passage of the law would threaten consumer safety.

The amendment -- attached to the broader Medicare bill under debate -- sets up a one-year trial program under which U.S. pharmacies can buy the cheaper drugs from Canada, which originally bought the drugs from U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

Canadian drugs are cheaper because the government-run health-care system, which buys in massive quantities, negotiates directly with the drug companies and gets them for less than American consumers pay.

The measure, introduced by Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, passed 62-28. A coalition of Democrats, moderate Republicans and senators from Northern border states -- where seniors regularly drive across the border to buy prescription drugs -- overcame the objections of the GOP leadership and conservative Republicans.

Dorgan said if all drugs in the United States were sold at Canadian prices, American consumers would save up to $38 billion a year. The actual effect of the measure -- should it become law -- is expected to be much smaller.

Dorgan said he hopes that opening the U.S. market to drugs from Canada will break what he called a "monopoly" enjoyed by U.S. drug manufacturers and drive prices down.

"We don't imagine that every pharmacy is going to buy their drugs through Canada," said Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt. "What Senator Dorgan's hope is, is that the knowledge that those prices are available will put downward pressure on prices here."

Similar measures have passed both houses of Congress before and have been signed into law. However, the previous and current measures require the Department of Health and Human Services to certify that the program is safe and would save money. HHS has twice refused to certify similar programs, effectively killing them.

Piatt said the difference this time is that the measure would allow drugs to be imported only from Canada, rather than from all over the Western Hemisphere.

Pharmaceutical firms are expected to fight the proposal when it goes to the House.

"Every relevant federal regulatory agency from the Food and Drug Administration to the Drug Enforcement Administration to the U.S. Customs Service has condemned importation as unsafe and risky for patients," the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association of America said in a statement.

"Two secretaries of Health and Human Services, one a Republican and one a Democrat, have declined to certify the safety of imported medicines. We should all be concerned about the threat of sub-standard and counterfeit medicines."

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