Old Battle Begins Anew: Senators Want To Legalize Cheap Drug Importation

It’s the can-Charlie-Brown-kick-the-football-this-time equivilent of Senate legislation, but an odd-bedfellows coalition of Democrats and Republicans are trying once more to cut drug costs for millions of Americans by allowing the reimportation of FDA-approved prescription drugs from other countries.

With little fanfare, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) this month introduced their Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act, which would allow U.S.-licensed pharmacies and drug wholesalers to import FDA-approved medications from countries with tough safety standards, such as Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and pass along the savings to their American customers.

This approach would allow Americans access to more affordable drugs from these countries, which are 35 to 55 percent lower than they are in the United States, while still enabling consumers to get their medications at their local pharmacy, the senators say. The legislation would also allow individual consumers to purchase prescription drugs for their own personal use from safe, reliable, FDA-inspected Canadian pharmacies, they add in a statement.

The legislation applies only to FDA-approved prescription drugs produced in FDA-approved plants from countries with comparable safety standards, they say.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that a similar bill introduced last Congress would save $19.4 billion for federal taxpayers, the lawmakers note in a statement.

Indeed, similar bills have been introduced — and died — in several past Congresses.

Last year, proponents tried to have reimportation included in the landmark healthcare reform law signed by President Obama. That measure was dumped from the final reform bill amid a hubbub of horse-trading to reach final passage.

When that failed, senators tried to move a standalone reimportation measure, but it, too, went nowhere.

In past years, President George W. Bush threatened to veto reimportation legislation. The issue is so old that Bush was asked about his anti-reimportation stance in a presidential debate when he sought re-election in 2004.

Stabenow and Snowe say they have 19 senators onboard as co-sponsors, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and David Vitter (R-La.).

The Senate this year, however, is without two stalwart Democratic supporters of drug reimportation, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Dorgan retired last year, and Feingold was defeated by Johnson.

The pharmaceutical industry opposes drug reimportation, and has lobbied hard against it.


Scott Nance is the publisher of the news site The Washington Current, formerly known as On The Hill. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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