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Two Past Foes of Drug Imports Say Legalization May Be Inevitable

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, whose agency has led the opposition to imported drugs, did not endorse the idea Tuesday, but did say he would advise President Bush not to stand in the way of legislation to legalize it.

“I think it’s coming,” Thompson said at a Tuesday news conference devoted mainly to the new Medicare discount drug cards. “I think Congress is going to pass it.” 

Thompson also warned that such a move would be expensive because regulators would have to increase inspections of foreign pharmaceutical plants and packages of prescription drugs entering this country. 

After Thompson spoke to reporters, Health and Human Services spokesman Bill Pierce further clarified the secretary’s comments to the Los Angeles Times, explaining he “just talked about the inevitability of this passing Congress, not whether we would support it. This does not represent a change in policy.” 

Speaking before a Health and Human Services task force that is considering drug importation, CVS Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Ryan became the first executive of a large drug store chain to support legalizing the purchase of drugs from other countries. Ryan said such a move would be a recognition of reality. 

“While many in our industry believe that importation is a fundamentally flawed concept and oppose it without exception, I have come to a slightly different view,” Ryan said in prepared testimony. 

“Millions of Americans already have opted to import drugs because they can’t afford not to. We owe it to them to face this issue head on and not look the other way,” Ryan argued. 

Ryan said that he believed importing prescription drugs could be done safely by using established distributors of pharmaceuticals in this country. He also urged the government to seek a long-term solution to rising U.S. drug prices.

Several bills are pending in Congress that would legalize importing drugs from Canada and elsewhere. One such bill is cosponsored by several key senators including Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Trent Lott of Mississippi and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota was the chief sponsor of the bill and was joined by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. 

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who has voiced concerns about drug imports, told the Associated Press earlier Tuesday that he does not know if the Senate will consider such a bill this year. The House passed a drug import bill last year, but the measure died in the Senate. 

Until now, the administration and Republican congressional leaders have been united in their opposition to such legislation, citing safety concerns.

“There is no way for people on their own to assure that a drug really is legitimate, that it’s coming from a legitimate site, and it’s in fact going to be a safe and effective product. That’s not a good standard for medicines in this country. Americans shouldn’t be settling for just safety or just affordability. We need to keep working on policies to get them both,” Mark McClellan, former chief of the Food and Drug Administration and the current head of the agency that overseas Medicare, told the NewsHour in March.

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