Sunday, May 23, 2004

Pressure is mounting for the Senate to vote this year on legislation that would allow Americans to import prescription drugs from other countries, as 228 House members sent a letter last week urging the majority leader to act.

“We are writing today urging you to schedule a vote on a comprehensive drug importation bill before the July 4 recess, following up on the Senate’s commitment to move forward on this issue,” said the letter, sent May 17 to Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. “Our nation’s seniors, and frankly all Americans, deserve a vote on a bi-partisan, market-based bill.”

Seventy-eight of the signers were Republicans.

The House already approved legislation last July that would allow individuals, pharmacists and wholesalers to import prescription drugs from some 25 countries where they are sold for less, due mostly to government price controls.

Similar bills have been introduced in the Senate, including a bipartisan measure sponsored in part by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat; and John McCain, Arizona Republican, that would allow Americans to import drugs only from Canada initially, and then gradually from other countries.

Mr. Frist heard from some senators last week who want the Senate to vote. Mr. McCain, Mr. Dorgan, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Maine Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe met with Mr. Frist Wednesday to urge him to schedule a floor vote soon on a reimportation bill, a Senate Democratic aide said.

Mr. Frist, according to the aide, did not commit himself and said any such bill would go through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. That committee’s chairman — Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican — is expected to introduce his own, competing drug importation measure soon after the Memorial Day break. He held a hearing on the issue Thursday.

Frist spokeswoman Amy Call said that while the majority leader hasn’t promised a vote, an importation bill “is something he’d like to see move forward,” and he “thinks the timing is right where it’s possible to get a bill people can agree on.”

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

Many lawmakers say they hear from constituents who have traveled to Canada to save money on their prescription drugs.

Four states have drug importation Web sites connected to Canada, and more than 20 other states are considering implementing drug importation programs, according to the letter.

As directed under the new Medicare law, the administration also has set up a task force to examine the issue of reimportation.

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