Obama backs re-importation, FDA wary

President Barack Obama still supports the re-importation of pharmaceuticals from other countries even though a deal he struck with the drug industry specifically excluded provisions on the controversial measure.

Asked by The Hill on Tuesday if Obama backs the re-importation effort, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “Yes. The president said during the campaign that he did. [He] said so in his first budget, assuming that safety concerns … could be addressed. And I think that’s the key.”

Gibbs’s comments could bolster the chances that a bipartisan amendment on drug re-importation will attract the necessary 60 votes. The measure, sponsored by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), is scheduled to be debated on the floor on Wednesday or Thursday.

The White House and Senate Democrats this summer struck a deal with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) on healthcare reform. The industry pledged to support the movement to reform the nation’s healthcare system and offered to find $80 billion in savings on drugs sold in the U.S.

There were conflicting accounts of what the White House agreed to, though it is clear that PhRMA would not back the Senate health measure if re-importation were attached to it.

The White House has not endorsed the Dorgan-Snowe-McCain measure. The White House has made it a policy not to take positions on Senate amendments.

At press time, however, the Food and Drug Administration came out against the Dorgan measure, stating in a letter to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) that “ as currently written, the resulting structure would be logistically challenging to implement and resource intensive. In addition, there are significant safety concerns.”

If the re-importation language passes, it could help sway Snowe to vote for the underlying bill. However, overcoming the opposition of PhRMA — and possibly having to scramble to find $80 billion in savings that PhRMA committed to — would be extremely challenging for Democratic leaders in Congress.

Obama was a co-sponsor of drug re-importation legislation when he was in the Senate. Then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) in 2003 successfully moved a re-importation measure through the House even though GOP leaders, including then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), opposed it. Emanuel is now White House chief of staff.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), who was among those who worked with Emanuel on that bill, said in October she does not understand why her former colleague agreed to the PhRMA deal.

“PhRMA got off easy,” she said.

PhRMA did not comment for this article.

House Democrats, who were not involved in the agreement with PhRMA, did not include re-importation language in their healthcare reform bill that passed the lower chamber, 220-215. But they did add legislative language on other issues that has attracted criticism from the pharmaceutical industry.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has said he is also “open-minded” about including drug re-importation legislation in the healthcare package if it passes the Senate.

Critics of the proposal argue it would not save much money and that importing drugs from other countries would pose a danger to U.S. consumers.

Dorgan recently said that a senior White House official denied the assertion that the president would oppose drug re-importation provisions in healthcare reform.

He added, “I think we’ve got a decent shot at winning. I don’t think we can pass healthcare reform without trying to put the brakes on the steep increases in prescription drug prices.

“The only thing I know about the White House is the president was a co-sponsor of the bill last year and Rahm Emanuel was one of the lead sponsors in the House, so my hope would be they’d be supportive,” Dorgan said.



— Alexander Bolton and Jeffrey Young contributed to this article.