The drug line

Published: Tuesday, October 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 30, 2002 at 5:27 p.m.

At first glance, it smells like one more election-year gimmick: A toll-free phone number for seniors to get information about ordering cheaper prescription drugs from Canada has been set up and publicized by Carol Roberts, the outspoken Democratic Palm Beach County Commissioner who garnered national attention for her role as a member of the county's canvassing board during the highly disputed 2000 election.

Roberts is challenging 11-term U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fort Lauderdale) in this fall's election. In a district where almost a third of residents are over age 65, prescription drugs are a hot topic. Prescription drugs were also part of a campaign two years

ago by Democratic challenger Elaine Bloom. However, Bloom's integrity on the issue was destroyed by questions about her role as director of a pharmaceutical company that was found guilty of price-fixing.

The debate over reimportation centers around drugs that are produced in the U.S. under FDA guidelines, then exported to Canada where they sell for much less than at home since Canada, like many European countries, has price controls on harmaceuticals.

In July, the U.S. Senate voted 69-30 to allow drug imports from Canada. But that bill, which has not yet been passed by the House, also requires that the secretary of Health and Human Services certify that imports would save money and pose no increased safety risk.

However, at a biotechnology conference in June, secretary Tommy Thompson said, "In light of the anthrax attacks, opening our borders to reimported drugs is a risk we simply cannot take."

Perhaps 8 percent of drugs on the world market are counterfeit, and some are very convincing copies. As reimportation becomes more common, it is increasingly likely that such fakes will make their way into the American market.

But experts disagree about the potential danger. Amanda McCloskey, director of health policy for the advocacy group Families USA told The Palm Beach Post, "If my parents asked, I would certainly tell them to do this."

While the practice is illegal, the FDA does not prosecute offenders. And an FDA spokesman told The Palm Beach Post that he could not cite any incidents of harm from drugs bought online from Canada.

In states that are closer to the Canadian border, it is common for senior citizen groups to organize bus trips to Canada, so that folks can fill prescriptions by walking into a Canadian pharmacy. Here in the Southeast, where that real-life service isn't

possible, patients rely on websites. Some claim it is safe, if one uses only reputable outlets that ask for a copy of the prescription just like U.S. mail-order pharmacies.

Is this one issue enough to swing an election? We'll know in November. In the meantime, Roberts is enjoying folk-hero status in the tradition of Robin Hood.

A 42-year old letter-writer to The Lakeland Ledger observed, "I can tell she is not in the pocket of big drug companies like a lot of our representatives....What she is doing may be illegal, but I applaud her and would vote for her if she were in my district."

The idea of reimportation would be less attractive if Congress had acted on a prescription drug benefit for Medicare. As legislators return home to campaign this fall, they must answer for this failure.

But a Medicare drug benefit would just one more way of having "someone else" pay for the high price of prescription drugs. The real problem is the actual cost.

Doesn't it point to something inherently wrong with our system if the only way for American consumers to afford American-manufactured drugs is to buy them in another country?

American pharmaceutical companies make huge profits, and are among the most generous political campaign contributors. Drug makers claim that they need the money for research and development. But pharmaceutical firms in countries in with price controls still turn a profit, and recent studies have shown that U.S. drug companies spend vastly more on television commercials than on research.

Would most Americans be willing to give up a few purple pill commercials in exchange for lower prices? You bet.

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