- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Permitting Americans to buy prescription drugs abroad safely, if it can be done at all, would wipe away most consumer savings and diminish investment in new medicines, the Bush administration said yesterday in a report.

The federal government only allows prescription drugs to be imported if they conform to U.S. standards or are made in America. However, consumers can bring in a small amount of prescription drugs for personal use.

U.S. lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow for large-scale drug imports as rising drug prices are prompting more Americans to cross into Canada, or look online, for better deals.

Several bills in the Senate would have permitted imports from Canada, where brand-name medicines can cost one-third or less of U.S. prices. Legislation passed the House last year, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, a surgeon, refused to allow a vote in the Senate.

The report, from an administration task force studying the feasibility of legalized drug imports, found a wholesale drug-importation program would only save U.S. consumers about 1 percent to 2 percent on drug costs.

Canada, which closely follows America’s drug standards, has warned that it cannot provideenoughmedication for its citizens and U.S. consumers.

Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona was cautious about drug-importation programs.

“We’d only recommend a program for drugs that are in high use, with high costs and are in higher demand in the United States,” he said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said the Bush administration’s senior advisers would recommend a veto if Congress passed an importation bill that stifled drug competition or innovation.

Dr. Carmona would not give specific numbers on the costs for a commercial drug program but said they would be high because the imported drugs would have to meet safety standards set by the Food and Drug Administration.

A program that guaranteed the safety of prescription drugs arriving in personal packages into America would cost upward of $3 billion annually, the report said.

Nearly 5 million shipments of prescription drugs worth $700 million, from travel and Internet sites, entered the United States from Canada in 2003, the report said. Another 5 million shipments came from the rest of the world in the same year.

While cross-border shipments rose from 2002 to 2003, sales are leveling off, the report said.

The report stressed, through anecdotal evidence, that consumers buying foreign prescription drugs over the Internet have higher health risks.

Peter Lurie, a physician and the deputy director for Public Citizen’s health research group, said the report used the dangers of Internet drug importation to tar the general idea of a government-controlled, drug-importation program.

“That seems a bit disingenuous,” said Dr. Lurie with the Washington consumer advocacy group.

But Dr. Bryan Liang, a member of Partnership for Safe Medicines, a pharmaceutical industry group, said no safeguards, including an importation program, will fully stop counterfeit drugs from entering the country.

“Any kind of elaborate regulatory importation regime would have the effect of adding costs to drugs so that in the end, drugs would be just as expensive, slower to get here and, possibly, not as safe,” Dr. Liang said.

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