Reflecting on the history of Canadian drug reimportation legislation

I received the following message the other day from one of our blog’s readers, Susanna Brooks:

I cannot believe that I cannot buy drugs in Canada (with a prescription). It’s been the only way that I can get some of the medications that I need that are ungodly expensive in the United States. I will work to vote against any Senator/Congressman that votes against the Canadian medications being sold/deliver in the U.S.A.!!

Sharing Susanna’s Sentiments

I know for a fact that tens of millions of people share Susanna’s sentiments. Surveys show that up to 80 percent of Americans agree that we should be able to buy prescription drugs from licensed Canadian pharmacies. So why aren’t the American people (officially, at least) allowed to do so?

As readers of this blog know, we’ve been covering the progress of proposed legislation on drug reimportation — allowing Americans to buy drugs from Canada — for some time now. The issue first bubbled to the surface in the late 90s, as the Internet made it easy for Americans to access Canadian pharmacies, enabling them to buy drugs for up to 80 percent less than at domestic drugstores.

Drug companies have tried everything to prevent this kind of free trade from happening. They’ve threatened to cut off supplies to Canadian drugstores that sold to Americans. They’ve tried to link Canadian drugstores to terrorism. And currently, they’re spending a lot of money with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and other “independent” groups to spread lies about the safety of licensed Canadian pharmacies.

But ultimately, Big Pharma’s most effective weapons against American consumers have been our own representatives in Congress and the White House. Thanks to the more than $1 billion that Big Pharma has paid out in Washington in the past decade, these politicians are really not our representatives at all. They’re Big Pharma’s representatives.

Surely, it’s been a tricky proposition for the politicians — opposing something that the American people overwhelmingly support. And how they’ve handled it over the past decade has been a dishonest, double-dealing mess.

How It All Started

Let’s take a look back:

It all started with “Slick Willie” — Bill Clinton. Both Clinton and his Republican Congress knew that Americans wanted legal reimportation. But they worked together (thanks to bags of money from Big Pharma) to give us a classic bait and switch.

Clinton, who publicly stated his support for reimportation, signed the Medicine Equity and Drug Safety Act into law on October 28, 2000, which supposedly made it legal. But the law contained huge loopholes that rendered it meaningless. One of these was to require Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to certify that the law would “pose no additional risk to public health and safety” and “significantly lower the cost of prescription drugs.” Shalala refused to do this, and the law became moot.

Then Bush won the 2000 election. Bush, like Clinton, was an avowed supporter of reimportation — at least during the campaign. He said reimportation “makes sense” as a way to provide a “helping hand” to the elderly.

After the election, Bush withdrew that helping hand, going silent on the issue. Members of Congress, spurred on by angry constituents, re-introduced reimportation legislation and, once again, it passed both houses of Congress. But again, it died.

In 2008, both Obama and McCain were vocal supporters of reimportation. Obama presented it as a main plank in his healthcare plan.

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In anticipation of the new president’s support, bills to allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada were introduced in both the House and the Senate this spring. But now it looks like this proposed legislation will not even be brought to a vote.

Obama’s Backroom Deal

Why? Because Obama cut a backroom deal with Big Pharma, agreeing not to support reimportation if the pharmaceutical industry agreed not to fight Obama’s other planned health reforms.

And that’s the sad, sordid history of how a public policy that in the past 10 years has been supported (during campaigns) by:

  • Bill Clinton;
  • Al Gore;
  • George W. Bush;
  • John Kerry;
  • John McCain; and
  • Barack Obama

has still not become law in the United States.

Can you think of a single other policy that every president or party candidate for an entire decade has supported — and yet, somehow, has never become law?

I can’t.

As a reader of this blog, I’m guessing you may agree with the sentiments of our frustrated reader, Susanna Brooks. But my question is, how many of you care enough about this issue to do something about it?

Are you willing to write the FDA? Call your Congressman? Send a letter to the White House?

If so, now is the time to do it. Because once healthcare legislation is passed (in all likelihood) in the fall, drug reimportation could be a forgotten issue for years to come.


About Cary Byrd

eDrugSearch founder, Cary Byrd, has been called an “e-health innovator” by MarketIntellNow, interviewed by top pharmaceutical industry journalists, invited to Matthew Holt’s Health 2.0 Conference and a Consumer Report's health summit, and highlighted on numerous health blogs. - Search. Compare. Save.

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