- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2012

No, Canada.

More than a decade after the first skirmishes over allowing American consumers to buy cheaper prescription drugs from the Great White North, the issue is still a loser — and by wider margins than ever.

The Senate rejected the latest proposal Thursday, even with a number of former supporters switching to vote against it.

Absent from the fight was President Obama, who in the past had supported drug reimportation and even ran on it in 2008, but who did not take a stand this time around.

Those pushing to allow drug importation said the declining support signaled the growing power of the pharmaceutical industry, which is a generous campaign contributor.

“What you’re about to see is the reason for the cynicism that the American people have about the way we do business here in Washington,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and the proposal’s sponsor. “One of the most powerful lobbies in Washington will exert its influence once again.”

He was trying to tack the importation language onto a broader bill to speed up the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of new medical products. The FDA bill easily sailed through the chamber later in the day.

Lawmakers have hotly debated legalizing purchase of foreign drugs for years, weighing concerns that the drugs sold in other countries may not be safe against worries that Americans end up paying higher prices for the same drugs than do foreign consumers.

Mr. McCain’s amendment would have directed the Department of Health and Human Services to write rules allowing individuals to buy drugs from approved Canadian pharmacies.

Supporters said it would save money for Americans who routinely pay between 35 percent and 55 percent more for drugs than they would in Europe or Canada, where price controls keep costs down.

But opponents said there’s no knowing where the drugs came from, pointing to looser Canadian regulations on drugs entering that country. Just because HHS certifies a pharmacy doesn’t mean all of its drugs have been properly screened, said Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican.

“I know fourth-graders who in 20 seconds could duplicate any seal you put on the Internet,” Mr. Enzi said. “The problem is not knowing where the drugs really come from that go through Canada to the United States.”

Requiring 60 votes to pass, the measure fell 17 votes shy, losing a 54-43 vote that betrayed no clear partisan or geographic divisions. Even senators from the same state split on the issue, illustrating its murkiness.

Some lawmakers didn’t try to hide the fact that their state is home to many of the drugmakers with high stakes in the debate.

“I’m proud that many of our country’s drugs originate in New Jersey,” said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat. “It would be wrong to undercut the work of these trained New Jerseyans only to put Americans in danger.”

Polls suggest that Americans — and seniors in particular — favor being able to buy foreign pharmaceuticals if it saves them money.

But support within Congress seems to be fading. In a 2009 Senate vote on a similar measure won 51 votes, eight more than this week’s action. And in 2007, the Senate garnered 63 votes for a proposal by then-Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, who for years was the chamber’s champion on the issue; however, his proposal failed to pass the House.

The House passed legislation in 2003 allowing drug imports from Canada and two dozen other countries, but the Bush administration opposed it, and lawmakers eventually settled for a scaled-back version letting Americans import drugs that have been approved by the FDA.

Another attempt fizzled two years ago, when lawmakers voted against adding a drug-importation provision to Mr. Obama’s health care law. The effort was led by Republicans, who were hoping to complicate the broader debate and divide Democrats.

Eight Republicans who voted for that 2009 version voted against this week’s effort, with some saying their earlier vote was merely an effort to add a poison pill to the health care bill, meaning Thursday’s vote was not a change of heart.

Meanwhile, four Democrats who voted against the 2009 version voted for Thursday’s amendment, while three switched in the other direction.

The 2009 version allowed both individuals and wholesalers to purchase drugs from Canada, while this year’s version only applied to individuals.

While Mr. Obama had promised during his election to push hard for legalizing the purchase of Canadian drugs, the White House changed course after brokering a deal with the pharmaceutical industry over the health care law, saying Canadian drugs could pose significant dangers to Americans.

The McCain amendment was one of several amendments that slowed down negotiations over the FDA bill. The must-pass piece of legislation reauthorizes user fees for drugs and medical devices, which fund about half of the FDA’s budget and would have otherwise expired in September.

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