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Congress Can Create Low-Cost Drug System

Prescription drug prices are too high in this country, and I have made it one of my top priorities to lower them. In fact, the first bill I introduced in the Senate was to allow for the safe importation of lower priced prescription drugs from Canada.

As I travel around Michigan I hear many disheartening stories from people who cannot afford needed medicine because the United States has the world’s highest prices for prescription drugs. Prescription drug prices are increasing at three times — and for some brands, 10 times — the rate of inflation.

And Americans are paying the price — from senior citizens who are cutting their pills in half because they can’t afford the prescribed dose to young mothers who have to choose between buying medication for their toddlers and paying their electric bill.

Businesses are paying the price too. For Michigan’s Big Three auto manufacturers, 25 percent of their insurance cost increases are due to the rising cost of prescription drugs. For every automobile they produce, the auto industry spends $1,500 in health care costs — more than they spend on the sheet metal they use to build it.

Our families are struggling to make ends meet and American businesses are laying off workers and struggling to compete with companies overseas. We need to work together to make prescription drugs safe, accessible and affordable for all Americans.

We can create a safe, fair system that allows us access to lower priced drugs while maintaining the high safety standards we currently enjoy. The Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act of 2005, a bipartisan bill I am sponsoring with 30 other Senators, will allow regulated and safe prescription drug importation from only those nations that meet our high safety standards.

This agreement will reduce prescription drug prices by up to 70 percent by allowing pharmacists and wholesalers to import prescription drugs from several industrialized countries if they comply with strict safety regulations under Food and Drug Administration oversight. Individuals will also be allowed to import 90-day supplies for themselves or family members under strict safety regulations.

The bill will make lower-priced prescription drugs available to every American. For example, Tamoxifen, a vital drug for breast cancer patients, costs $340 in the United States, $39 in Canada. Americans who need Zocor to reduce their cholesterol must pay $130 here, but our Canadian neighbors buy it for $67.

The pharmaceutical industry claims that we can’t import drugs safely. But we already do. We import one quarter of the drugs consumed by Americans. In 2002, we imported $14.3 billion in drugs from Ireland, including the blockbuster drug Lipitor, through a safe, closed supply chain between wholesalers and manufacturers. These drugs are produced overseas – in places like China, India, or Slovakia — and we know they are safe because the FDA inspects overseas manufacturing plants that produce drugs for the U.S. market.

The problem is that today, the drug makers have a complete monopoly on the importation of those prescription drugs. No one else—doctors, pharmacists, patients or employers—has the same opportunity to purchase those FDA-approved drugs at low prices. Opening the market to more FDA-inspected plants will bring better competition — and better prices — to the United States.

As more and more people understand that importation can save them money, support is growing quickly, even from policymakers once firmly opposed to it. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) announced last year, “I cannot explain to my mother any longer why she should pay twice or two-thirds as much more than what they pay in Canada or Mexico for the same drugs. I can’t do it anymore.”

The pharmaceutical industry benefits handsomely from tax breaks, patent protections and taxpayer funded research conducted at the National Institutes of Health. The ironic result of this government assistance is that we pay the highest prices in the world for medicine.

The time has come to pass the Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act. It has enough support on both sides of the aisle to win passage in the Senate.

Now more than ever, we need this bill because the new drug benefit under Medicare law fails to lower prices. The discount drug cards provided under that law probably will not even cover the cost of inflation of most drugs, nor will it prevent drug companies from raising prices.

I have listened to small-business owners, Big Three auto executives, workers, hospital administrators, parents of children with chronic disorders, and seniors — all affected by exploding prescription drug prices, and resulting rising health insurance costs.

Drugs that are unaffordable are drugs that are unavailable. We should feel the same sense of urgency about this issue that families and businesses feel each day in their struggle to make ends meet. We all agree that prescription drugs need to be more affordable and accessible for all Americans. Now it’s time to act. Life should never be a daily struggle between food and medicine, not for any American.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is the Democratic Caucus Secretary.

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