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A bipartisan call for drug reimportation
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Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Republican, holds up a sample of an anti-cancer drug, Tamoxifen, which he says costs six times more in the U.S. than it does in Germany. He uses it to show the need for a drug reimportation bill. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Seniors packed a Bloomington retirement community chapel Monday to hear about the high cost of prescription drugs. A bipartisan group of lawmakers urged them to lobby Congress in support of allowing the reimportation of prescription drugs from other countries. They say if Congress adds a prescription drug benefit to Medicare without doing anything about rising drug costs, seniors will be no better off.

Bloomington, Minn. — U.S. Reps. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., and Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, are holding a series of town hall meetings across the country to urge seniors to put pressure on Congress. The two pushed a bill through the House last month that would allow Americans to buy FDA-approved prescription drugs from 25 industrialized countries.

The Senate included a reimportation provision in its version of the Medicare drug benefit bill, but it would only allow drugs from Canada to be sold in the U.S. if the Secretary of Health and Human Services approves. Emanuel told the crowd of seniors to make their voices heard while a conference committee is still working on the Medicare bill.

"You guys started this by going over the border here in Minnesota, and Montana, up in Vermont, over in Maine. And now storefronts are opening in Chicago, I know they've opened up in Miami," Emanuel said. "The market's moving there -- we've got to pass legislation so you all don't feel like common criminals doing what you're trying to do -- so you don't have to miss medication, cut a pill in half, skip a month."

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Image Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois

The pharmaceutical industry opposes drug reimportation, arguing it could allow unsafe drugs into the U.S. Gutknecht says he persuaded 243 members of the House to vote for his bill by showing charts listing price disparities between the U.S. and other industrialized nations.

For example, Gutknecht says he found the breast cancer drug Tamoxifen costs, on average, $360 a bottle in the U.S., and $60 in Munich, Germany.

"Facts are our friends. Once people know the facts, it becomes indefensible for the status quo," Gutknecht said.

Gutknecht and Emanuel were joined by U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, DFL-Minn., who says the challenge is changing votes in the Senate. Fifty-three senators, including Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, have signed a letter opposing Gutknecht's bill, because it doesn't require the HHS secretary to certify that reimported drugs pose no additional risk to consumers. Bush administration officials say they won't certify that reimported drugs are safe.

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Image Sen. Mark Dayton

Coleman's communications director, Tom Steward, says Coleman isn't opposed to reimportation if safety concerns are addressed.

"Reimportation, from Sen. Coleman's perspective, is a small part of the solution. He supports that solution and has voted for it as part of the Medicare prescription drug benefit package that passed the Senate," Steward said. "But always with the proviso -- as has been the case for several years now under both Clinton and Bush administrations -- that the secretary of Health and Human Services has to make sure and certify that those drugs are safe."

Steward says Coleman is more concerned about adding a drug benefit to Medicare. University of Minnesota pharmaceutical expert Steven Schondelmeyer says a Medicare bill needs to open up the U.S. market to competition from other countries.

"Passing a drug program that covers prescription drugs under Medicare, without taking into account what's going to happen to the prices of those drugs, is like writing a blank check to the pharmaceutical industry. And believe me, they will cash it," said Schondelmeyer.

One of the audience members, Medicare recipient Joe Ramnarine of Shoreview, passed out an analysis showing that he will pay more for his prescription drugs under a Medicare drug benefit than if he were to buy them in Canada.

"It's not going to benefit us at all if we don't change the price of drugs," Ramnarine said. "What is happening -- this money's going to go to the drug company."

Other seniors at the meeting worried about retirees, whose former employers could drop their drug coverage once a Medicare drug benefit goes into effect.

Schondelmeyer told seniors that the issue of high drug costs won't go away, even if Congress passes a Medicare drug benefit and a reimportation bill. He says the pharmaceutical industry is highly innovative, and will find new ways to make a profit.

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