WASHINGTON — Americans could save as much as $50 billion in prescription drug costs under a revived Senate proposal that would allow pharmacies to import FDA-approved medicines from other countries, according to Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
It is “absolutely unconscionable” that high drug costs have forced patients to ration their prescriptions, Snowe said Wednesday at a press conference announcing the legislation. Snowe was an original co-sponsor of the bill, a version of which was first introduced five years ago by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
“Had that bill become law by now, many Americans would have access to lower drug prices that are already available in many industrialized nations,” Snowe said.
Snowe said allowing U.S. pharmacies to import cheaper drugs from countries such as Canada would save consumers $50 billion and cut $10 billion in direct costs to Medicare and Medicaid over the next 10 years.
The latest legislation, which the senators have not yet officially introduced, would authorize the Food and Drug Administration to review and register foreign companies to export drugs to the United States.
Federal law currently prohibits pharmacies from importing prescription drugs, though individuals can travel to other countries and bring the drugs back themselves, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., another co-sponsor of the bill.
Previous efforts to end that import ban failed in the face of Bush administration opposition, but Snowe predicted swift passage of the legislation under the new administration. “There is no question that we can get it done this year,” she said.
President Obama co-sponsored a failed version of the bill when he was in the Senate and his administration backed the idea in its budget proposal last week.
A spokesman for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the senator, also a co-sponsor, supported the legislation and noted she supported similar legislation in 2007. Aides to Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree of Maine, said both supported the idea.
“I think there’s a tailwind here that wasn’t here previously,” Dorgan said.
Pharmaceutical industry representatives criticized the proposal, saying it cannot prevent counterfeited drugs entering the country.
“If the recent recall of foreign products has taught us anything, it is that Congress must better equip and fully fund the FDA so that it has the resources to do its job,” Ken Johnson, vice president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said in a statement. “Now is not the time to weaken the agency by moving forward with prescription drug importation.”
Snowe said the current inspection system does not do enough to ensure drugs’ safety, but she said the proposed bill would fund and enforce FDA inspections of drug manufacturers in other countries from start to finish.
“There will be inspections of every facility and approval by the FDA for every facility… [from which] we import these medications,” she said. “We just don’t say, ‘We certify the safety.’ We set up a standard for that safety regime.”
Pete Wyckoff, a co-chair of the National Coalition of Consumer Organizations on Aging, said the bill’s safety measures would make most drugs Americans consume safer than they are now.
“This has been vetted,” Wyckoff said. “The reason the pharmaceutical industry is so worried is because this can really make a difference in international prices.”