The House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee met Thursday to discuss the bill sponsored by Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., and Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn. Two of biggest issues involving the bill, which has upset some lawmakers, are drug safety and price.
Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the ranking minority member on the subcommittee, said many Republicans are trying to protect the pharmaceutical industry by arguing re-importation would open the floodgates to drugs that might be unsafe or substandard. Brown said the subcommittee's Republican leadership refused to allow prescription drug consumers to testify at the hearing.
Brown helped stage a news conference before the hearing featuring 70-year-old Ruth Tubb of Bristol, Conn. She talked about the difficulties she has had paying for medications and said she travels to Canada to buy the drugs she needs. Re-importation by third parties is illegal.
"Our interest is for seniors with prescriptions to be able to go to Canada," Brown told United Press International. "This (measure) is really a stopgap until we get something on prescription drugs for seniors." Asked if the federal government would also allow reimportation from Mexico, Brown said that has yet to be determined.
Other lawmakers made reference to stories of senior citizens taking bus trips across the border to buy their medications and the hearing elicited heated discussion from both sides. House Energy and Commerce committee chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., said the Food and Drug Administration should provide data on the number of drugs already being imported into the United States that are adulterated, unsafe, or subpotent. Tauzin said the country should not lower its safety standards.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., called Thursday's hearing "a sham" and said Republicans were just dragging their feet. They're "spinning it in a direction that's convenient for the Republican leadership ... What is this hearing for today? Is this some show? ... Republicans don't want to address the real issue" of price, Pallone said.
Gutknecht distributed figures at the hearing -- also posted on his Web site -- showing how American consumers commonly pay up to 70 percent more for pharmaceuticals than consumers elsewhere. The figures, prepared by an organization called the Life Extension Network, show 20 pills of the antidepressant Prozac, at 20 milligrams each, cost $91.08 in the United States but only $18.50 in Europe. Thirty pills of Zocor, a cholesterol-lowering medication, at 100 milligrams per pill cost $114.56 in the United States but only $52.50 in Europe. Thirty pills of the allergy treatment Claritin, at 10 milligrams per pill, cost $89 in the United States but $18.75 in Europe.
The subcommittee heard testimony from the Food and Drug Administration and experts from the pharmaceutical industry, including Peter Barton Hutt, a partner with the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling who testified on behalf of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
"While everyone is concerned with the price of pharmaceuticals," Hutt said, "easing restrictions on the importation of drugs offers consumers nothing more than a more dangerous drug supply and false hope that prices will be lowered."
Any bill that would permit reimportation, Hutt added, would "erode the ability of the FDA to ensure the safety and efficacy of the drugs sold in the U.S."
William K. Hubbard, senior associate commissioner for policy, planning and legislation for the FDA, echoed that sentiment.
Although the Kingston-Gutknecht bill is "intended to provide drug price relief to consumers," Hubbard told the subcommittee, "(it) would severely damage the system of drug regulation that has come to be known as the 'gold standard' for drug safety throughout the world."
Discussing his bill, Gutknecht asked why the United States imports food from all over the world but not medications.
"If Americans can safely buy and eat millions of tons of imported food every year, we certainly can safely import FDA-approved drugs from FDA-approved facilities," Gutknecht said in a statement. "Seniors should not have to take bus trips or be treated like criminals to get fair prices on prescription drugs."