Friday, January 09, 2009

Has Drug Importation Finally Fizzled?

Senators Byron Dorgan and Olympia Snowe issued a highly upbeat press release today on the prospects for their drug importation bill, which they say they’ll reintroduce later this month. The headline on the release claims their bill “will finally pass Congress.” The release makes a point of noting that both President-Elect Barack Obama and Senator John McCain co-sponsored their bill the last time it was introduced in the Senate and claims that the new president “supports the legislation.”

But the rah-rah tone of the release is belied by a real lack of enthusiasm from the incoming administration. As a candidate for president, Obama’s health care platform initially said he supported importation, but after the drug-tainting scandals hit the press (think Chinese heparin), the campaign’s health policy advisor, Dora Hughes, made a number of appearances at which she did her best to let people know that was no longer the case. (See The Pink Sheet coverage of this topic).

And many Democrats who want to undertake major health care reform see re-importation as a small-ball distraction. New House Energy & Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman has felt that way for many years. (See here in The RPM Report.)

And yesterday in the HELP committee’s courtesy hearing with Obama’s nominee for HHS secretary, Tom Daschle, Bernie Sanders asked about his support for importation. Daschle’s response was evasive. Here it is in its entirety:

“You put your finger on the most important aspect of this effort, which is to ensure the confidence and safety of the drugs wherever they many come from. Many of our drugs today are manufactured abroad and imported as domestic product, even though they’re manufactured abroad. And so some consistent policy with regard to the manufacture and the sale of all of our drugs I think is in order. And I’d love to work with this committee and certainly with you Sen. Sanders to make sure that we come up with the best policy.”

If you can detect any hint of enthusiasm in that response, you have more sensitive ears than we do. It sounds more like a response to a question about making sure we don’t have more tainted heparin fiascos. If the incoming administration wanted to make drug importation happen, don’t you think Daschle would have said so in no uncertain terms? After all, this was a hearing full of self-congratulatory sentiment among Democrats after their resounding victory in November, not to mention warm and fuzzy feelings over the presence of Ted Kennedy, who’s in treatment for cancer, and Daschle, who was ousted from the Senate in an embarrassing defeat when he was Senate majority leader.

While the Dorgan/Snowe bill may well pass Congress, it wouldn’t be the first time an importation bill has made it through. The first time was back in 2000, when a Republican Congress passed legislation saying the HHS secretary could allow drug importation if the secretary could certify that the imported drugs would be safe and save money – and it was President Clinton’s HHS secretary, Donna Shalala, who refused to certify.

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