- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

Most senior citizens have been around long enough to realize that if something sounds too good to be true, they would better beware.

This certainly is the case with the latest policy scam making the rounds in Washington: that the solution to their prescription drug problems can be found through reimportation.Unfortunately, political considerations, rather than safety concerns, prevailed when the U.S. Senate passed a bill in July to allow pharmacies and wholesalers to reimport U.S. drugs from Canada. The measure should give seniors serious concern.

Through a program of national health insurance with price controls, Canada destroyed any incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop research facilities in their country. Instead, Canadians have benefited from drugs developed in the United States, as U.S. pharmaceutical companies ship drugs to Canada to gain additional sales.

However, there are no safety checks on the drugs being reimported to the United States. Are they the same drugs listed on the bottle? Are these the drugs their physicians would recommend for them? Have the drugs been properly stored for safety? All these questions remain unanswered.

Elizabeth G. Durant, executive director of the Trade Programs for the U.S. Customs Service, told the Senate Special Committee on Aging in July that many Americans who order prescription drugs through the mail from Canada receive different pharmaceuticals, which, if taken with other drugs (and not under the direction of a physician) can cause dangerous medical reactions. Their counterfeit drugs are a serious problem.

Drugs imported (or reimported) from Canada and other foreign countries may be unapproved, unsafe, ineffective, subpotent, superpotent or contaminated. The risks are real.

Two secretaries of health and human services, Donna Shalala, appointed by President Clinton, and Tommy Thompson, appointed by President Bush, have warned that prescription drugs coming into the United States from Canada cannot be assumed to meet the safety requirements of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA cannot go into Canada, observe how a drug is manufactured, and follow the process from the time it is put into a capsule to the time it reaches the patient in the United States. Numerous FDA commissioners also have warned of the dangers of drug reimportation.

During an election year, it may seem to the voters that politicians are providing a solution to the high prescription drug costs facing many seniors by supporting reimportation of drugs from Canada. They are ignoring reality: the very real dangers these drugs may pose.

An amendment was added to the Senate bill requiring HHS to certify that any "reimportation" program is safe and provides consumers significant savings. However, this is meaningless because the provision could be dropped in further legislative action. And even if it isn't, it is only words on paper unless HHS receives the resources to make it happen.

The political process has a number of ways to provide savings for seniors on prescription drugs. Reimportation is not one of them.

The message should go out loud and clear: Reimportation of drugs is hazardous to the health of America's seniors.

Dr. Donald J. Senese is vice president and director of research for the 60 Plus Association.

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