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Bush's Plan To Keep Discount Drugs Out Of Reach

by Christopher Brauchli

Medicare Bill A Stunning Giveaway To Drug Companies

One can only feel compassion for the Canadians. No one is looking out for their welfare. And those of us who live in this country owe a debt of gratitude to the Food and Drug Administration that not only insures that we'll pay more for drugs than our Canadian counterparts but protects us from the perils of untested drugs that unsuspecting Canadians are routinely given.

Thanks to a vigilant FDA those U.S. pharmacies such as Rx Depot, which have been helping Americans buy cheaper prescription drugs imported from Canada, are being shut down. In March of last year it sent something called a "Warning Letter" to the Store Manager of Rx Depot in Arizona telling it that it was aware of the fact that Rx was helping consumers save money by filling their prescription at Canadian pharmacies. The FDA pointed out that Rx's actions in permitting customers to acquire Canadian drugs "present a significant risk to public health, and... mislead the public about the safety of the drugs obtained through Rx Depot." The letter then went on for two pages to explain all the technical violations of the law that were implicated in Rx Depot's business.

Not everyone in the United States will be affected by the FDA's action. Those who are geographically blessed will still be able, as they have in the past, to drive into Canada and get their drugs. Those who work for large governmental agencies that are ignoring the FDA will still be able to get their drugs cheaply. Montgomery, Alabama saved more than $400,000 in 2003 through a program that enabled employees and former employees to get their drugs from Canada. New Hampshire, Boston and Springfield, Mass. have told the FDA that they will ignore the law. Illinois' Gov. Rod Blagojevich is trying to start a pilot program for his state to import cheap drugs and he and Minnesota's Gov. Tim Pawlenty have scheduled a discussion of the issue at the National Governor's Association conference on February 24. The Montana Senior Citizens Association ran cross- border trips for its members to obtain cheaper drugs until it found it could accomplish the same thing on the Internet. It has not yet decided what to do in the face of the Bush administration's aggressive attack on those trying to save money.

One should give credit where credit is due and I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the consistency of the administration in its attitude towards drugs. In the recently passed medicare bill the administration has gone to great lengths to make sure that United States pharmacies do not offer any competition to Canadian pharmacies that continue to be used by U.S. citizens. It has built in provisions that guarantee that U.S. citizens will continue to pay top dollar for all their drugs.

Under the new Medicare law, senior citizens who live until 2006 will get a modicum of help with prescription drug prices, something of which Mr. Bush is terribly proud. Indeed, he is so proud of that fact that he is spending $9.5 million on television advertising telling everyone how good the new drug prescription program will be when it becomes effective. What the commercial doesn't point out is that the new bill will do nothing to lower drug prices. Under the Democratic version of the bill the Secretary of Health and Human Services would have been required to bargain with drug companies on behalf of all 40 million Medicare beneficiaries in order to obtain lower prices for drugs, the savings being passed on to the consumer. Under the Bush administration version of the bill that was passed, the Secretary is prohibited from negotiating lower drug prices. Each individual private insurer can negotiate its own prices the way it does now.

Some would consider this a mindless provision. Logic would suggest that when there are 40 million medicare beneficiaries, government would use its leverage to negotiate the best possible prices for prescription drugs for them. There has to be a reason such a provision was left out of the bill. There is. It's called campaign contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2002 elections drug companies gave more than $13 million to Republicans and $5 million to Democrats. Drug companies favor higher costs for prescription drugs because it means they make more money. George Bush believes it reflects well on him when big business does well and believes we all do well when big business does well. It's clear the drug companies are doing well. It's less obvious that the rest of us are.

Christopher Brauchli is a Boulder lawyer and and writes a weekly column for Boulder Daily Camera and the Knight Ridder news service

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Albion Monitor February 12, 2004 (

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