The House early Friday approved 243-186 a bill to allow the importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from industrialized nations, including anti-HIV and anticancer drugs, brushing aside opposition from the Bush administration and a fierce lobbying campaign by the pharmaceutical industry. "A bottle of tamoxifen, used to fight breast cancer, costs $360 in the United States. It costs $60 in Germany," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.). "I was not sent here by drug companies and I will not stand here and see American seniors take a backseat to the pharmaceutical industry." Some of the anti-HIV drugs sold in Canada carry a price tag less than half of what U.S. consumers are charged for the same medications. A regimen of three anti-HIV drugs can cost over $10,000 in the United States, but only about half of that in Canada and some other countries.
Critics argued that the bill, while it held out the hope of lower prices, would sacrifice patient safety. "The country is going to be flooded with unsafe pharmaceutical counterfeits, overage pharmaceuticals, pharmaceuticals that don't preserve and protect the safety of our citizens," said Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. The Food and Drug Administration also opposes the measure. FDA commissioner Mark McClellan said the bill "creates a wide channel for large volumes of unapproved drugs and other products to enter the United States that are potentially injurious to public health and pose a threat to the security of our nation's drug supply." Bush administration officials also released a statement following the House vote calling the bill "dangerous legislation."
But U.S. consumers strongly support the measure. Over the past several years media reports have detailed how Americans, particularly senior citizens, regularly travel to Canada and less frequently to Mexico to buy cheaper medications that they cannot afford to buy at home. Many Canadian pharmacies have launched Internet sales services specifically to ship medications to Americans buying the drugs online.
Congress has approved legislation twice before dealing with the drug importation issue, but both times the bills said the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services would first have to certify that the drugs would be safe. Neither Donna Shalala, who served under former President Clinton, nor Tommy Thompson, who holds office under President Bush, was willing to do so. The current bill does not include a provision requiring HHS approval. Instead, it would order the department to set up a system to allow importation of FDA-approved drugs from facilities in Canada, the European Union, and seven other countries. It also would require imported medicine to be shipped in antitampering and anticounterfeiting packaging.
The measure now goes to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain fate, congressional experts said.