- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Given the litigious society we live in, Americans in recent years have become all too familiar with the various warnings we receive every day. “Handle with care,” “keep out of reach of children,” and “don’t try this at home” have entered our lexicon.

Sadly we may soon be seeing another warning label that reads “This medication may be hazardous to your health” on packages of prescription drugs. But that’s not possible, you may say. All prescription drugs are certified and cleared by the federal government, aren’t they? They are now, but if legislation currently working its way through Congress is enacted into law that would not be the case in the future. The House of Representatives is set to vote later this month on a bill that would specifically bar the Food and Drug Administration from stopping the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and 25 other countries.

Needless to say, innumerable health experts are alarmed about this prospect. The conclusion of many is that drugs entering the United States from outside our borders and without the strict regulation of our Food and Drug Administration cannot be trusted. That puts all Americans at risk, particularly senior citizens who rely on and use prescription drugs in greater numbers than do younger people.

The 60 Plus Association has been out in front of this issue for what we believe to be all the right reasons. Chief among those is the frightening possibility that drugs reimported into the United States from Canada, Mexico, Australia or anywhere else, that have not been subjected to the formal testing and inspection of the FDA could be tampered with in many ways. In this time of global terrorism, it would not be a far stretch to imagine anthrax-laced counterfeit drugs being shipped across our borders.

If foreign-made drugs start streaming into the United States, we would also have to worry about mislabeled drug bottles and packages, mishandled shipments of drug supplies and the possibility the drugs are out and out fakes. If the FDA is taken out of the role of protecting our drug supply we are setting ourselves up for an inevitable catastrophe.

The driving force behind the legislation to allow foreign drugs into the United States is of course the desire to help hold down the costs of prescription drugs. The motivation is reasonable, but the risk is not, I believe.

The 60 Plus Association knows the cost for prescription drugs is a major budgetary consideration for millions of Americans — in particular, those on fixed incomes.

But we believe working to solve the burden of these drug costs ought to be taken up from within the United States, not from without. That’s why we’re working with senators and representatives on Capitol Hill to craft legislation to address the concerns of drug-makers, physicians, patients, hospitals and other relevant players in this debate. What should not be done, however, is for people to become reliant upon questionable drugs from other countries that are brought into the United States — either legally or illegally — simply because they happen to be less expensive.

The same applies within our borders. Middlemen and resellers right here within the U.S. already ship drugs from state to state to state, marking the circuitous route these medications must travel from manufacturer to distributor to pharmacy to patient. Imagine now the extra leap of faith one must have for drugs coming across our borders from Quebec, Calcutta or Tijuana. Such a prospect provides us with an easy reminder that the prescription one fills could be a prescription for tragedy.

Our country rightfully boasts the safest drugs and the safest drug supply links in the world. But there’s room for improvement and there’s certainly a requirement for the FDA to get tough with anyone who conspires to introduce counterfeit drugs into the marketplace.

That is why the 60 Plus Association cautions, “Buyer Beware.” At the same time, we will continue to press for legislation facilitating greater oversight from state and federal regulators and will support reasonable measures for drug costs, such as those proposed in the president’s call for health-care and Medicare reform. But bringing in drugs of uncertain quality from other countries is clearly a step in the wrong direction, we believe. That is why our members are contacting their elected officials in Washington, urging them to oppose legislation that would diminish the role of the FDA in protecting prescription medication.

Jim Martin is president of 60 Plus Association, a non-partisan national seniors advocacy group in Arlington, Va.

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