Three similar bills have been defeated in Congress.
Legislation proposed Wednesday by Maine’s U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe along with Democrats and other moderate Republicans would allow the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and other foreign countries in an effort to lower their cost.

Four months in the making, the bipartisan measure has drawn support from both Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., ranking minority member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Maine health care advocates endorsed the proposed legislation, saying it should lead to drug cost savings and, perhaps more important, would cast a spotlight on the bigger national problem of non-competitive pricing. Other countries are able to negotiate or place legal caps on the prices of their imported prescription drugs.

The new proposal was panned by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, a lobbying group for American prescription drug manufacturers.

But Snowe said such a measure was long overdue.

“For millions of Americans, there is no doubt about the need – their health insurance simply doesn’t cover prescription drugs,” she said in a written statement. “A drug can be safe and effective, but what good is it if you can’t afford to take it? … It is simply unconscionable that American consumers are subjected to price discrimination.”

The bill addresses past safety concerns raised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that have led to the defeat of three similar proposals in Congress.

It would:

• allow importation by licensed pharmacists and wholesalers from Canada within 90 days of enactment and from the current European Union members, plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Switzerland starting one year after enactment.

• require registration of wholesalers and pharmacies with FDA and would levy capped fees to support the costs of the program.

• require importers and all resellers of the imported drugs to provide full chain-of-custody documentation, tracking possession of drugs from one point of manufacture to the sale to the consumer.

• allow the FDA to ban importation of counterfeit, contaminated or otherwise adulterated drugs and allow the agency to require testing of product shipments.

• only allow importation of patient administered drugs that are approved by the FDA and made in FDA-inspected plants.

Tom Bradley, deputy director of the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund said the measure is laudable, as far as it goes.

“It seems like a good faith and meaningful attempt to permit the reimportation of drugs,” he said. But he added, it is “not a long term solution.” That would be actual price controls similar to those imposed in the countries that would be exporting their drugs to the United States, he said.

John Carr, president of the Maine Council of Senior Citizens said Snowe’s bill is a sign that “the political pressure is building in Congress to do something about importing drugs.”

His group has been organizing bus trips to Canada where Americans can fill their prescriptions for a fraction of the price they would pay on this side of the border for the same medications.

Last summer, his group teamed up with the Penobscot Nation on a trial proposal that involved importation of prescription drugs from Canada that would be warehoused on tribal land in Old Town, then wholesaled to Maine pharmacies. All records would be open to public scrutiny, he said.

It won the backing of Maine’s congressional delegation and the state’s political leaders. The proposal has been sitting on the desk of Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson since August, awaiting his signature, Carr said.

In a written statement, Alan Holmer, president of PhRMA, called the latest Senate proposal “risky” and would allow “possibly substandard and unregulated drugs” into the United States.

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