Say goodbye to the drug reimportation bill

drug-reimportation-2009-battle-endsWhen the winner in a Monday Night Football game became obvious in the fourth quarter, ’70s color commentator Don Meredith used to warble, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over, we know that all good things must end…”

I’m afraid it may be time to turn out the lights — perhaps forever — on legalized drug reimportation.

I hate to sound so dire, and I know that a small, bipartisan group of legislators, including Sen. David Vitter, is working hard to keep reimportation on the negotiating table as Congress prepares to pass sweeping healthcare reform legislation.

But I just don’t think the good guys are going to win this one. No matter what President Obama ends up signing into law on healthcare, I’m 95 percent sure it won’t include allowing American consumers to legally purchase prescription drugs from Canada.

It’s maddening when you think about it. Since reimportation became a public policy issue in the late 1990s, polls have consistently shown that between 70 and 80 percent of Americans want the right to buy from Canadian pharmacies.

Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George W. Bush, John Kerry, Ron Paul, John McCain and Obama (among others) have all spoken in favor of reimportation at various times (generally during their presidential campaigns). Congress has had a reimportation bill put before it virtually every session; it has even passed Congress before, only not to be implemented because of an administrative loophole in the legislation.

It’s the most blatant example of politicians willfully deflecting the desires of the American people I can think of in the past 20 years, if not longer.

I feel silly now that as recently as March, I was confident that this time would be different.

So, why is the will of the people being deferred again — and perhaps defeated once and for all?

As the Wall Street Journal put it in an article last week on proposed healthcare reform legislation:

Drug Makers Score Early Wins as Plan Takes Shape

The pharmaceuticals industry, which President Barack Obama promised to “take on” during his campaign, is winning most of what it wants in the health-care overhaul.

The final contours of the legislation are far from settled, but the industry, led by a onetime powerful congressman, has notched a string of victories. Legislation expected soon in the powerful Senate Finance Committee will leave out cost-cutting steps as part of an agreement with the industry and the White House, according to Congressional aides, industry lobbyists and others involved in the talks.

The missing items include two planks of Mr. Obama’s campaign platform: allowing cheaper drugs to be imported from Canada and giving the federal government the right to negotiate Medicare drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies…

“This is the best year the drug industry has had in decades,” said Nancy LeaMond of AARP, the seniors’ lobby, which is seeking greater price-cutting on drugs.

Why did Obama back down? It’s simple. Big Pharma has the money to potentially take down healthcare reform with national advertising and astroturf organizing, the way it did when the Clinton Administration tried reform in the early 1990s.

Obama decided to swallow some bitter pills in order to get broader reform legislation passed.

The decision is already paying off, as PhRMA, the Big Pharma lobby, is now financing an ad campaign in support of healthcare reform legislation. Per FiercePharma:

Harry and Louise are back. The actors who starred in the infamous anti-healthcare reform commercials back in the ’90s have gone turncoat, signing up for a new campaign in support of a healthcare revamp. Sponsoring the ads? None other than PhRMA … The $4 million campaign starts this weekend and runs for three weeks…

The NYT speculates that by funding it–and so publicly supporting the reform plans–drugmakers might garner even more political goodwill to add to their $80 billion cost-cutting deal with Sen. Max Baucus. And that goodwill has paid off, at least in the Senate, where the latest versions of healthcare reform leave out drug reimportation and Medicare price negotiation (as the Wall Street Journal reports).

So Big Pharma wins again — this time, by buying the opposing team.

Here’s how I now think things will shake out over the next year:

  • Healthcare reform legislation will be passed.
  • Because of “compromises” with Big Pharma and insurance companies, along with Congress’ inability to pass new taxes during a recession, the legislation will not pay for itself — not by a longshot.
  • In the end, Obama will probably give up on the public insurance option, too — meaning that healthcare reform might look a lot like a bigger version of the Medicare Part D boondoggle passed during the Bush Administation.
  • Americans will continue to purchase medications from Canadian pharmacies in the same way they do today, because they will still cost a lot less than what we pay here.

It pains me to make this prediction. In fact, I really hope I’m wrong. But I fear I’m not.

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