The Senate voted yesterday to allow pharmacists in the United States to reimport prescription drugs from Canada where they are sold for less, in an attempt to cut drug prices for American seniors.
The Democratic proposal was added to the Senate’s Medicare prescription-drug bill, by a vote of 62-28, with 20 Republicans voting for it, and three Democrats voting against it.
Drug reimportation is popular with many lawmakers because U.S. seniors have turned to Canada to buy the same drugs found in the United States — often made by the same drug companies in the same factories — for much cheaper. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat and sponsor of the reimportation proposal, said allowing drugs to be reimported from Canada will force competition and lower drug prices here.
“We should and must put some downward pressure on drug prices,” Mr. Dorgan said.
Opponents said the process could be unsafe and lead to drugs that might be unapproved, outdated, mislabeled or counterfeited.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist — who voted against the proposal — said a reimportation law is already on the books, but was never implemented because two previous secretaries of health and human services could not certify reimportation would be safe or save money. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson will have the same authority to stop the Dorgan proposal, and Mr. Frist said he is confident this will happen.
But Mr. Dorgan said his proposal is narrower than the previous law because it only applies to Canada, and he insisted the process would be safe.
In the House, a top Republican aide said the proposal is “bad policy,” but is popular among many members and would pass if it came to a floor vote. The aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said leaders have not yet decided whether they will allow a similar amendment to the House Medicare bill.
The House Medicare drug bill hits the floor next week, after the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved it 29-20 late Thursday, turning back numerous Democratic amendments over three days of debate.
Both chambers are still aiming to produce a bill by the July 4th recess.
“We’re on course to complete it,” Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, said yesterday. He said there are 14 Democratic amendments pending in the Senate, and likely some Republican amendments as well.
A group of 27 Senate Republicans this week sent a letter to President Bush detailing their objections to the bill. They said the final product must focus prescription-drug coverage on seniors who need it most, and must have more incentives for people to choose private drug plans. They plan to pursue these issues on the floor next week.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, would like to allow private companies more flexibility in bidding for government contracts, instead of capping how high they can bid.
“We need to give more flexibility so that folks delivering [the drug benefit] in the private sector can make it more attractive,” said Sen. Craig Thomas, Wyoming Republican.
Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, wants to offer amendments to reduce the long-term cost of Medicare, including by requiring higher-income seniors in traditional Medicare to pay more for their doctor visits.
But the Republicans shied away from saying they would vote against the Senate bill if these changes do not happen.
They instead pointed to the fact that the House bill is stronger on many of these issues, so matters will likely be resolved in conference, if they are not resolved on the Senate floor.
Both the House and Senate drug bills would offer similar prescription-drug benefits either through private, drug-only plans for those who choose to stay in traditional Medicare or through a new Medicare option. The new option would use private health groups, such as preferred provider organizations, to deliver comprehensive health coverage, including drug coverage. The House bill goes further, requiring traditional Medicare to compete against the private plans starting in 2010. And the House bill also would require higher-income seniors to pay some of their catastrophic-illness drug bills.