In a 74-21 vote which passed Wednesday, the measure was attached to the agriculture spending bill currently being debated in the Senate.
"The American public wants affordable medicines," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "I believe we should do all we can to reduce the financial burden imposed on our citizens by high drug costs."
Added Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., "If someone else is paying half price or a third of the price than is being charged to the American consumer ... why can't the American consumer have access to those drugs in a global economy?"
"Every day, all across our northern and southern borders, Americans leave the U.S. in order to purchase their medications discovered, developed, manufactured in the U.S. at dramatically lower prices that are not available here in the U.S.," said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., another sponsor. "My response is why not let our pharmacists reimport the same prescription drugs at these cut-rate costs and pass the savings along to their American consumers?"
But critics charged it was too risky to import drugs.
Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services are already overburdened. Certifying that drugs overseas are safe would be too much, he said.
"They can't do that," Breaux said. "That's an impossible burden."
Current law allows only a manufacturer to reimport its product into this country. The measure approved by the Senate would allow pharmacists and drug wholesale distributors to purchase and import drugs that have been shipped from the United States to other nations.
The House has already passed similar measures. One House provision would prohibit the Food and Drug Administration from enforcing the import ban. The other House provision would allow Americans to legally bring prescription drugs across the border from Canada and Mexico.
A provision added to the Senate proposal by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., sought to add additional safeguards by requiring the Secretary of Health and Human Services to certify that there would be cost reductions and that there would be no safety risks to U.S. consumers.
The debate has drawn heavy opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, which has taken several full-page newspaper ads in recent days urging Americans to call Congress.
In a statement after the vote, Alan Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the Senate's action "could jeopardize patient safety and would not ensure any savings for consumers."
"Both the House and Senate measures are based on the mistaken notion that importation is a solution to make medicines more affordable in the U.S.," Holmer said. "The real soltion is to expand drug coverage for those who most need it elderly and disabled Americans."
The White House has not taken a formal position on the proposal, an FDA spokesman said.
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