- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

This article is the first in an occasional new feature that will present the argument of an important business, labor, environmental or economic interest without the camouflage of authorship by a nominally independent expert.


Remember the Wendy's ads where a delightful little lady opens the hamburger bun, lifts up the lettuce and asks, skeptically, "Where's the beef?"

America now needs to ask the same question of Congress, which, instead of focusing on the real meat of Medicare prescription drug coverage, is giving seniors the legislative equivalent of buns and lettuce.

Seniors need prescription drug coverage the same coverage that millions of younger Americans, including members of Congress, now enjoy. Instead, Congress has set up a veritable array of highly questionable condiments, leaving uncovered seniors asking: Where's the beef?

Among the congressional condiments is a so-called re-importation bill a convoluted scheme that would allow pharmacists and wholesalers to bring in prescription drugs from Canada, where drug prices are controlled by the Canadian government.

That idea may sound like a good idea for getting cheaper medicines, but as with everything, that's only part of the story.

What re-importation proponents like Sens. Byron Dorgan and Debbie Stabenow, and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, don't want the public to know is their legislation, if enacted, would overturn a landmark consumer protection law that prohibits imported medicines from coming back into the United States outside of the control of the manufacturer.

Congress enacted that law years ago because there was a great danger that re-imported medicines unregulated by the manufacturers responsible for the product could be adulterated or the target for counterfeiters.

A senior official of the Food and Drug Administration has warned that such legislation "will encourage unscrupulous individuals to devise schemes using Canada as a trans-shipment point for dangerous products from all points around the globe."

And before September 11, we may only have been concerned about counterfeiters and fast-buck artists who were out to scam the system. Today, we even have to be concerned about terrorists using the medicine supply as a target for harming Americans. It makes no sense to wipe out important consumer protections that have ensured the safety of our medicine supply at a time when we are fighting a war on terrorism. Moreover, the legislation doesn't offer what seniors really need: prescription drug insurance coverage.

Another meatless wonder being offered to seniors is the so-called "Greater Access to Affordable Pharmaceuticals Act," which would upset the careful balance created by a 1984 law enabling both development of newer and better medicines by research-based pharmaceutical companies as well as a growing market for cheaper generic drugs.

Nearly half of all prescriptions today are filled with generic drugs, proof that the law is working as intended. But generic companies merely copy existing drugs they don't do any research of their own.

That means if we tip the balance further toward the generic side of the see-saw, there won't be as much investment in pharmaceutical research.

As the population ages, we need cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, stroke, arthritis and other diseases not just cheaper copies of drugs discovered years ago.

So what's in this legislation for seniors? Maybe a few dollars saved on their current medicines, but no cures for what may ail them in the future. And, again, no real Grade A beef in the form of prescription drug coverage.

Fortunately, some in Congress have prepared meatier fare for seniors legislation that would not only give seniors coverage today but would also encourage research on tomorrow's cures. But the clock is ticking on this session of Congress.

If lawmakers buy into legislation that's all condiments but no meat, there won't be a prescription drug coverage for seniors law passed this year. If that happens, seniors and all Americans will have a real beef with the people they send to Washington to represent them.


Russel Bantham is executive vice president and general counsel of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents the country's leading research-based pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

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