Sunday, April 11, 2004

A leading Senate Republican last week began pushing legislation to legalize the purchase of prescription drugs from Canada, where they are sold cheaper — an idea supported by several states and cities.

The bill — introduced Thursday by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Senate Finance Committee — would immediately open the door for American consumers to buy the cheaper prescription drugs, while requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish a new system for drug importation.

The new system would allow individuals, pharmacies and wholesalers to buy qualified drugs from foreign exporters who register with the FDA, demonstrate compliance with safety measures and take other steps to verify the safety of their drugs.

After three years, the system would be expanded beyond Canada to include members of the European Union and several other countries, including Japan.

“Free-trade principles argue for allowing importation of drugs from Canada and other countries as long as those drugs are safe,” Mr. Grassley said. “The FDA has been unresponsive for years, and U.S. consumers have been going around the FDA. Congress needs to take action to make sure that prescription drug imports are both safe and available to U.S. consumers.”

Pressure has been building for the United States to allow people to purchase prescription drugs from foreign countries, where governments control the cost. Many consumers already have been purchasing drugs illegally from Canada, and states such as Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin have set up Web sites for residents to by drugs from Canada.

Springfield, Mass., already had a program to import drugs from Canada.

Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, petitioned the federal government in December for permission to start a pilot program where Illinois would buy prescription drugs from Canada for its state workers to save money. Last week, Mr. Blagojevich filed another petition and threatened to sue if he doesn’t get a response to his request in six months.

The House approved legislation last July that would allow individuals, pharmacists and wholesalers to import FDA-approved prescription drugs from some 25 countries where they are sold for less.

Senators have introduced similar bills, but the Senate hasn’t acted yet. Mr. Grassley’s involvement, however, may be a sign that action is possible.

Current law prohibits the importation of prescription drugs from foreign countries, unless the FDA can certify the safety of those drugs, which neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration has been able to do.

Bill Pierce, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said that even if a prescription drug is made in an FDA-approved facility in Canada or elsewhere, once it leaves that facility and goes to a foreign pharmacy or wholesaler, there is no way the U.S. government can guarantee its safety.

“We’re simply upholding the law,” Mr. Pierce said of the government’s unwillingness to approve state drug importation ideas.

Mr. Pierce said it’s too soon to comment on the bill because a federal task force, created by the new Medicare law, is examining the feasibility of creating a system that would allow drugs to be purchased from Canada.

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