(NaturalNews) The United States Senate recently rejected two separate proposals that would have allowed the importation of cheaper medication from other countries, apparently in order to preserve a deal between the pharmaceutical industry and the White House.
The proposals were part of a wider effort to reform the U.S. healthcare system, in large part by cutting unnecessary costs.
Drug importation was first proposed by Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, in an amendment to the healthcare bill. The amendment would have allowed U.S. wholesale and retail drug distributors, including pharmacies, to import products from Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan or New Zealand, where price controls keep drug costs much lower than in the United States. The amendment eventually gained more than 24 sponsors from both major parties.
"This issue isn't rocket science," Dorgan said. "The American people are charged the highest prices in the world. They want Congress to stand up for their interests and do something about it."
According to Dorgan and co-sponsor Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and former presidential candidate, drug importation could cut $80 billion off the country's health spending over the next decade.
The United States spends $2.5 trillion on health care every year.
A vote on Dorgan's proposal was blocked on December 10 by fellow Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, who expressed concerns over the safety of imported medications. Like the FDA and the White House, Carper objected that the quality of imported drugs could not be assured.
"Senator Dorgan's amendment could potentially allow unsafe, counterfeited drugs into the United States, contaminating our drug supply," Carper said. "This is a complicated issue that affects people's lives. We should make sure that the FDA says it's safe before we reimport drugs from other countries."
"My amendment includes strong safeguards to prohibit drug counterfeiting and other practices that would put the consumer at risk," Dorgan replied. "It applies only to FDA-approved prescription drugs produced in FDA-approved plants from countries with comparable safety standards."
Other Senators charged that the real motive behind the claim of safety concerns was to preserve a recent deal between the White House and the pharmaceutical industry, in which the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) agreed to fund $80 billion worth of health care reform by accepting higher taxes and price agreements. According to a number of congressional staffers and pharmaceutical industry lobbyists, the deal included a verbal promise by President Obama to not support drug importation.
"There's great dissension in the Democrat caucus over Senator Dorgan's amendment," McCain said. "If it passes, as it should, it breaks the agreement that the White House made with PhRMA. So the White House, as well as PhRMA, has been over here lobbying furiously."
PhRMA denied that it had made any such deal, but the group and the White House both made statements earlier in the year saying that drug importation will not be necessary if Congress approves a healthcare bill implementing lower prices on U.S.-made drugs.
The $315 billion pharmaceutical industry has been the biggest healthcare-related industry to support the White House's healthcare reform effort. It is also one of the most influential lobbies in the country.
"People are walking on eggshells," Dorgan said. "If we pass legislation allowing people freedom to import drugs, the pharmaceutical industry might not support the health care amendment."
In the end, Dorgan's proposal, which needed 60 votes to be incorporated into the healthcare bill, failed 51-48. A separate amendment that would have allowed the importation of drugs specifically approved by the FDA also failed, 56-43.
"The drug industry has a lot of clout in this town, and they demonstrated that tonight," Dorgan said after the vote. "This is not over."