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Senate Votes to Allow Importing of Prescription Drugs From Canada

By ROBERT PEAR
Saturday, June 21, 2003

WASHINGTON, June 20 The Senate voted overwhelmingly today to let pharmacists import prescription drugs from Canada and resell them in the United States, so consumers here could benefit from lower Canadian prices.

It was the second time in less than a year that the Senate had taken such a stand. But the proposal is contingent on a finding that the imports would pose no risk to public health, and the Bush administration has made clear that it will not issue such a finding.

The 62-to-28 vote to allow Canadian imports came as the Senate finished the first of two weeks of debate on a bipartisan bill to revamp Medicare and add coverage for prescription drugs.

Many members of Congress, especially those from states that border Canada, said their constituents were already traveling there to buy medicine at prices lower than those charged in the United States.

For years, these lawmakers have tried to ease the strict rules that prohibit most drug imports unless they have been authorized by the manufacturer. Many legislators have accused the drug industry of resisting imports to keep prices up.

"The U.S. consumer pays the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs," said Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, who offered the plan on drug imports as an amendment to the Medicare bill.

"We should and must put some downward pressure on drug prices," he said. "I understand the pharmaceutical manufacturers do not like that. If I were in their position, I would certainly resist it as well."

The House has previously voted for legislation like the Senate bill, which would allow pharmacists and wholesalers to import prescription drugs from Canada. Senator Dorgan said the safety risks were minimal.

A new report from the Congressional Research Service, done at the request of Representative Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent, found that, "The statutory requirements for approving and marketing pharmaceutical products in the United States and Canada are, in general, quite similar."

Canada, like the United States, has rules and procedures to control the "chain of custody" of prescription drugs, from factory to wholesaler to pharmacy, the report said.

But Dr. Mark B. McClellan, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, said his agency "cannot guarantee the safety of Canadian drugs."

Permitting imports from Canada would create "a wide inlet for counterfeit drugs and other dangerous products that are potentially injurious to the public health," Dr. McClellan, the food and drug commissioner, said in a letter to the Senate.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the trade association for brand-name drug companies, also denounced Mr. Dorgan's proposal.

"If importation were legal, Canada would become the easiest portal into the United States for the world's terrorists and counterfeiters," the association said in a document circulated on Capitol Hill.

Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, said that unsafe and adulterated drugs could be shipped from other countries, through Canada, to the United States. Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, said such risks were particularly serious "in this era of bioterrorism."

Another Republican, Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, said that drug prices were lower in Canada because they were controlled by government agencies. The United States, he said, should not support that approach.

On Thursday, the Senate approved another amendment to the Medicare bill, which would speed the approval and marketing of low-cost generic versions of brand-name drugs.

After today's vote, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, went to the Senate floor and denounced the underlying Medicare legislation. Mrs. Clinton said the bill would create a confusing, bureaucratic "Medicare maze." She made her point with a chart reminiscent of the one Republicans used in 1994 to ridicule the plan Mrs. Clinton had developed as first lady to guarantee health insurance for all Americans.

Two Democratic presidential contenders, Senators Bob Graham of Florida and John Kerry of Massachusetts, also criticized the bill. Mr. Graham offered an amendment to close a gap in coverage that he said would affect more than four million Medicare beneficiaries.

The Senate and the House both plan to vote next week on the Medicare legislation, which would offer drug coverage to the program's 40 million beneficiaries. The bill, officially estimated to cost $400 billion over 10 years, would authorize the biggest changes in Medicare since creation of the program in 1965.

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