CONGRESSMAN: 15-minute vote, final passage!
SUSAN DENTZER: The House vote to approve pharmaceutical drug importation finally occurred near 3:00 in the morning. It brought to an end an impassioned late-night debate, in which backers from both parties argued for greater access to cheaper drugs from abroad.
CONGRESSMAN: 243 the nays are 186. The bill is passed without objection. The motion...
SUSAN DENTZER: The bill's lead sponsor, Republican Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota, pointed to international price differences for the breast cancer drug Tamoxifen.
REP. GIL GUTKNECHT: Someone's going to hold up a package of pills, they're going to ask this: "Why is it that Americans have to spend $360 for this drug, this lifesaving drug, when Germans can buy it for $60?" And then they're going to ask the even tougher question: "Congressman, what did you do about it?"
Tonight, we can send a very simple but clear message: The status quo is unacceptable, and we will not stand idly by to allow Americans to be forced to pay the world's highest price for prescription drugs.
SUSAN DENTZER: But another bipartisan corps of opponents contended that importing drugs from other countries would hurt America's pharmaceutical industry, and place consumers' health and safety at serious risk. Michigan Democrat John Dingell:
REP. JOHN DINGELL: It will allow this country to be flooded with unsafe, counterfeit drugs, drugs that will not do what they should, drugs that are unsafe, drugs that will kill the American people. I tell you, it is a bad bill.
SUSAN DENTZER: Republican Billy Tauzin of Louisiana agreed.
REP. BILLY TAUZIN: We're going to repeal tonight, if they get their way, the language that's in the law that says FDA must certify the safety of any drugs that are imported into this country; to ensure that the drug supply in this country is never compromised; that bogus, counterfeit, diluted, old, rotten drugs are not permitted into this country.
SUSAN DENTZER: In the end, the final 243-186 vote handed victory to the unlikely political alliance backing importation. The House's lone independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, spoke about that at a Capitol Hill news conference today.
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: We came together last night from the most right-wing people, left wing, and people in the middle, and said, "enough is enough;" and centrists, too, we said we're going to stand up to the big money interests and protect the American people's.
SUSAN DENTZER: Key sponsor JoAnn Emerson of Missouri, a Republican, referred to her own House leadership's opposition to the bill, and the tough fight mounted by the pharmaceutical industry.
REP. JOANN EMERSON: We did this against an army of 600-plus lobbyists, and did this with passion and with heart, and because we were on the right side of this issue.
SUSAN DENTZER: The importation drive stems from the fact that retail prices on brand-name patented drugs are frequently far less in other countries than in the United States. That's true for a variety of reasons, including steps that foreign governments take to regulate or constrain drug prices. Pharmaceutical manufacturers have opposed similar price constraints in the U.S., arguing they'd have less money for research and development of new drugs.
The price differences have prompted U.S. senior citizens, like those pictured here from Maine, to go on drug-buying excursions to Canada. Others have skipped the trip, instead buying cheaper drugs from abroad over the Internet. At present, all this activity is illegal under U.S. law, since drugs sold abroad are technically unapproved for use in the United States. But the law is seldom used to block purchases by individuals, and these Maine seniors got away with it.
NEENE QUIRION: I think, frankly, the border guard sympathized with the seniors. And, you know, everyone knows how much prescriptions are.
SUSAN DENTZER: The House bill would now greatly expand drug importation, by allowing pharmacists, wholesalers, and individuals, to bring back drugs legally. The drugs could come from Canada, the European Union, and nine other industrialized nations -- most of them with drug safety regulations comparable to those in the U.S. Any imported drugs would have to be approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration and produced in FDA-approved facilities abroad. Backers say safeguards would protect against unscrupulous operators trying to bring in counterfeit medications.
LEGISLATOR: There are some awfully complex issues before us.
SUSAN DENTZER: The House bill will now go to the congressional conference committee, grappling with Medicare reform legislation. There, differences will have to be hammered out with a separate importation bill approved by the senate last month.
REP. RAHM EMANUEL: We know the next steps: We go to fight in conference the pharmaceutical companies are trying to stop us from doing something in conference.
SUSAN DENTZER: In contrast to the House bill, the Senate's provision would allow drugs to be imported from Canada only. The Senate bill also includes one major out: After a one-year pilot, the secretary of Health and Human Services could determine whether the public health risks outweighed the benefits, and if so, could halt the program.
DONNA SHALALA: When it comes to protecting the health of American's senior citizens...
SUSAN DENTZER: In fact, two health secretaries have already determined they could not guarantee the public's safety if importation were allowed: Donna Shalala, who served in the Clinton administration; and the Bush administration's Tommy Thompson.
The federal Food and Drug Administration is also opposed. FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan has written House lawmakers that reimportation would create "a wide channel for large volumes of unapproved drugs and products, potentially injurious to public health." Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert acknowledged today that importation had now become the official House position in the Medicare conference.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: You know, it's in the bill. It's there. It's something that we're going to have work with. What's legal, what you can bring in, what the FDA will do. We also still have some are responsibility to make sure that there is safety for our consumers and our constituents out there and all those things have to be in the balance. But it's part of the process.
SUSAN DENTZER: The Medicare conference is now expected to last into the fall.