Don’t Let the Facts Get In the Way of a Good Issue

When he was a United States Senator, Barack Obama cosponsored legislation to allow the importation of prescription drugs into this country.  White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was a champion of importation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It’s very telling then that the Obama Administration yesterday threw a bucket of cold water on efforts in the Senate to attach a drug importation amendment onto health reform legislation.  Dr. Margaret Hamburg, head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, sent a letter to Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), saying that it would be “logistically challenging” to try to guarantee the safety of any prescription medications entering our borders from other countries.  Dr. Hamburg notes, accurately, that the FDA can’t oversee the safety of foreign supply chains.

This isn’t to criticize President Obama or Mr. Emanuel for inconsistency.  It’s just that there is a significant difference between taking a position on Capitol Hill and actually being responsible for the safety and well-being of the American people.  President Obama has that responsibility and his Administration is, accordingly, pointing out the dangers inherent in importation legislation.

It’s pretty clear why the Administration is raising the danger sign.  Reports just this week from the European Union have indicated that the continent has a major drug counterfeiting problem.  EU Industry Commissioner Gunter Verheugen said, “The number of counterfeit medicines arriving in Europe is constantly growing.  The European Commission is extremely worried.”  In just two months, the EU seized 34 million counterfeit pills at various customs points.

And some U.S. Senators want to open our borders to this?

So what is the motivation for the importation amendment?  That’s a good question.  It’s not cost savings.  Medical product distributors have pointed out that, when you factor in costs for shipping, storage, relabeling, liability insurance, inspections and other necessities, much of the price advantage held by foreign drugs is wiped out.   

The motivation isn’t that society’s most vulnerable are having a harder time affording their medications.  When the importation debate first reared its illogical head, there wasn’t a Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit for older Americans.  Now, Part D is making medicines affordable for tens of millions of seniors and you don’t read stories anymore about bus sorties to Canada to buy drugs.

And this certainly doesn’t have anything to do with strengthening the American marketplace.  One Senator took the floor today to ask “Why do Americans pay higher prices for pharmaceuticals?”  Well, Senator, the answer is simple.  Other countries impose government price controls.  The answer to this price disparity is not to import those price controls, but to make it a trade policy priority to press other nations to pay their fair share for U.S. pharmaceutical innovation.

There simply is no compelling reason to expose Americans to potentially dangerous drugs.  But that has yet to stop drug importation advocates.