- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

From combined dispatches

Pfizer Inc., Merck & Co. and fellow drug makers thought Republican congressional majorities and the re-election of President Bush created a firewall against legal prescription-drug imports. The wall is starting to crack.

Eight U.S. representatives and senators, including five Republicans, yesterday introduced a bill that would allow Americans to import cheaper drugs from Canada and other countries.

On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota and Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine won a promise from Majority Leader Bill Frist of Republican for a hearing on their own proposal.

“We are determined to pass drug-importation legislation in the Senate this year,” Mr. Dorgan and Mrs. Snowe said in a joint statement. “It is unfair for the pharmaceutical industry to charge American consumers the highest prices in the world for prescription medicines.”

Lawmakers are responding to pressure from voters and state governors dismayed by U.S. drug prices that are rising at 10 percent a year, while governments in Canada and elsewhere set prices as much as 70 percent lower. Ten governors, including four Republicans, last week wrote to Mr. Frist, urging passage of a drug-importation measure.

Health officials in Canada, however, have introduced a plan to ban cross-border drug sales, citing supply concerns and ethical considerations regarding Canadian doctors’ issuing prescription drugs without seeing a patient in person.

Henry McKinnell, chief executive officer of New York-based Pfizer, raised more than $200,000 to help re-elect Mr. Bush, who in the campaign opposed legalized drug importation on safety grounds. Though, with all 435 House members and a third of the Senate up for re-election next year, Republican control of Congress and the White House may not guarantee the drug makers a firewall.

“We’ve gotten some movement in both the House and the Senate,” said David Certner, director of federal affairs for the senior citizens group AARP. “There does seem to be a fair amount of popular support.”

Mr. Certner said he thinks there are majorities in both the House and the Senate for a bill “if we could ever get it to a vote. You have opposition from the White House and the leadership. It still remains a possibility, something that we’re going to continue to push.”

While Mr. Frist hasn’t agreed to allow a vote, he did promise at least a hearing on the matter. In return, Mr. Dorgan withdrew his threat to block the confirmation of Michael Leavitt as secretary of Health and Human Services until a vote on the measure was set.

The governors who wrote to Mr. Frist urging legalized drug imports included Republicans Jim Douglas of Vermont, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utahand Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota; and Democrats John Baldacci of Maine, Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, James E. Doyle of Wisconsin, Brian Schweitzer of Montana, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Thomas Vilsack of Iowa.

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