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The Los Angeles Times - EDITORIAL

End Drug-Import Hysteria

April 27, 2004

It's no accident that Americans still pay 38% more for similar prescription drugs than Canadians, 45% more than the French and 48% more than Italians. Last year, GOP leaders in Congress defeated two provisions in the Medicare prescription drug bill that would have minimized the unfairness.

The first would have required Medicare to directly negotiate with drug companies to lower the prices they charge beneficiaries, as do Canada, France, Italy -- and even our own Department of Veterans Affairs. The second would have legalized importation of some prescription medications from abroad, where they are generally much cheaper. Both provisions were deleted after relentless opposition from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which gave the GOP 95% of the $3.5 million in contributions it made in the 2002 election cycle.

Fortunately, the importation proposal gained a second wind last week with the introduction of a bill enjoying broader bipartisan support than earlier bills. S. 2328, by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), would let consumers import up to a 90-day supply of drugs from licensed pharmacists and wholesalers in Canada.

Its fate is uncertain. It isn't going anywhere until Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the head of the Senate's health committee, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) allow members to vote on it. Frist was one of the strongest voices against importation in 2003, and Gregg says he opposes much of the bill's wording.

The president of the pharmaceutical lobbying group says the bill "opens the door for unapproved and untraceable medicines to flow onto pharmacy shelves across America, endangering patients with possibly substandard, unregulated drugs."

He hysterically overstates the danger. The bill restricts imports to drugs manufactured in sites the Food and Drug Administration already inspects, and requires that Canadian pharmacists and wholesalers register with the FDA. If Canadian consumers aren't getting dangerous drugs from Canadian pharmacies, then there's no reason to assume that U.S. consumers would.

The risk in letting consumers import drugs from abroad isn't zero, but it's far lower than the risks the agency routinely considers negligible. Every day the FDA, which regulates more than 150,000 medical products, drugs and devices, uses risk-management principles to focus its limited resources on the clearest public-safety risks. Canadian drugs don't belong anywhere near that category. And, as Snowe recently put it, "such drugs aren't any good at all if Americans can't afford to take them."