Time to Stop Drug Reimportation
So the governor of Illinois plans to help residents of his state
buy prescription drugs from other countries. And he's only the
latest politician to join a movement toward "reimportation" that's
popped up in other places nationwide.
It may seem like a good idea: help cash-strapped patients,
particularly seniors, knock 30 percent or more off the price of
drugs purchased in the United States. And as the governor, Democrat
Rod Blagojevic, claimed in announcing the program, the federal
government has failed to act on this increasingly significant
Actually, the federal government has acted. Congress passed the
Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, which, for now, gives seniors
drug discount cards that reduce out-of-pocket expenses for some by
as much as 70 percent.
Moreover, the governor's approach is penny-wise, pound-foolish.
Our pharmaceutical industry is the envy of the world precisely
because we don't take shortcuts, such as importing drugs. We don't
let governments control research budgets. (Of 47 "blockbuster"
drugs studied for a 2001 report, just four had significant National
Institutes of Health funding, and most of that was through
universities.) We don't let government set prices for drugs, and we
don't begrudge drug companies their earnings for performing what's
unarguably their most important function -- developing products
that alleviate our pain or cure our maladies.
If the Food and Drug Administration allows Gov. Blagojevic's
program to go forward, a few residents of Illinois will reap some
savings. But not as much as many might expect, according to the
Congressional Budget Office. The CBO estimates policies similar to
that proposed by Gov. Blagojevic would result in savings of only
about 1 percent and that, before long, prices will rise in the
foreign countries from which Illinois residents would obtain their
drugs, wiping out most, if not all, of hoped-for savings.
What happens if drug companies begin to limit drug supplies to
these other countries? Some already have told Canadian
pharmaceutical distributors the drugs they sell there are not
intended for resale elsewhere, and at least one official in Ireland
has expressed concern over the effects this will have on their
patients. How far are we from having countries prohibit the sale of
their drugs to patients outside their borders?
One can argue, of course, that even temporary savings are good. But
what if, as many suspect, this is but a first step toward importing
price controls for drugs made and sold in America? The proposal by
Gov. Blagojevic and other local, state and federal efforts will not
spur the innovation needed to keep our drug industry on top and our
patients first in line for new treatments and cures for their
Supporters of importation may roll their eyes when safety concerns
are raised, but the FDA -- widely viewed as a level-headed agency
-- has been quite vocal in its concern over the safety of imported
drugs. It refuses to guarantee they are safe and, apparently, with
In an independent fact-finding mission at the Kennedy Airport Mail
Facility in New York found that of the 40,000 packages believed to
be carrying drugs that arrive there daily, only about 500-700 were
inspected. Many were found to be past their expiration dates or
improperly packaged, which calls into question their effectiveness.
This process of shipping drugs around the world also increases the
chances of tampering.
If these imported drugs are safe, why do Canada, the "Canadian
pharmacies" on the Internet and the states and localities that
allow importation all disclaim any responsibility for their safety?
Indeed, does Gov. Blagojevic plan to have the state of Illinois
ensure the safety of the reimported drugs he proposes to legalize?
If not, why not?
Gov. Blagojevic is right about one thing: The current system is far
from perfect. But drug companies already lower their prices for
poorer countries and also provide low-income individuals in this
country access to their medicines -- yet still ensure that research
on new drugs continues apace.
No one supports a pity party for the pharmaceutical industry. But
it's only right that we protect the quality of drugs for American
consumers and ensure drug makers the rightful fruits of their
labors so they'll continue to have the incentive to do the
important work we all count on them to do.
is a senior policy analyst in the Center for Health Policy Studies
at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire