A hearing Wednesday by the Department of Health and Human Services on the issue of reimporting cheaper medications to U.S. consumers from other Western countries focused on the anti-HIV drug Norvir, which late last year increased in price in the United States by 400%. AIDS groups and consumer advocates argued at the hearing that U.S. citizens should be allowed to purchase medications from foreign pharmacies, particularly those in Canada and other Western nations, where Norvir costs as little as $720 per year. The price hike by Abbott Laboratories on Norvir in the United States raised the drug's cost from about $1,500 per year to nearly $7,800.
Abbott officials say that because they aren't able to raise the price of the medication overseas due to government price caps, they were forced to boost the U.S. price to help pay for research into other drugs, including new medications to treat HIV. But AIDS activists question Abbott's motives and are especially critical of the price hike since Norvir's development was partially funded with federal tax dollars from the National Institutes of Health. "The taxpayers already paid for this invention, so if anything it should be cheaper in the United States," James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, a group that pushes for lower drug prices, told The New York Times. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told the Times that the extreme price hike on Norvir is a textbook example of why so many U.S. consumers are seeking cheaper drugs overseas. "Norvir is sort of a nexus of all the bad practices that all the drug companies use," he said. "Abbott should understand that what they're doing invites scrutiny and change."
Bipartisan support for legalizing drug imports from other countries is building in Congress. Last week Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced a bill that would gradually legalize drug imports from Canada, Europe, and Australia, where cost controls keep medication prices at a fraction of their U.S. price tags. Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) also has signaled his support for drug reimportation legislation. But pharmaceutical companies oppose any efforts to allow U.S. consumers to buy drugs from foreign pharmacies, saying the medications may not be safe and that a loss in profits from U.S. sales could severely curtail research and development into new medications. Bush administration officials also oppose drug reimportation, stressing that the medications cannot be guaranteed to be safe or effective.