Senate poised for test vote on drug reimportation

The Senate is poised to vote for the first time on language to ease access to prescription drugs imported from abroad during consideration of the agriculture-appropriations bill currently on the Senate floor, fulfilling a promise made by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in July.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has proposed an amendment to the agriculture spending bill that would block the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from preventing people from importing prescription medicines.

The language was introduced Thursday but had not been placed in the queue for a vote by press time yesterday. Frist hopes to wrap up the agriculture bill by the middle or end of this week, according to a spokesperson. Vitter is the author of a measure that would establish FDA regulation of imported drugs.

As part of an agreement with Vitter, Frist vowed to permit the amendment as a test vote for Senate support of relaxing restrictions on consumers’ obtaining drugs at lower prices from countries such as Canada that use price controls to hold down the cost of medicines

Vitter had threatened to block the confirmation of FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford but backed down when Frist promised not to stall the drug-imports amendment when the agriculture-appropriations bill came to the floor.

Prescription-drug importation, or “reimportation,” as it is it is sometimes called, enjoys broad support in the Congress but is opposed by the GOP leadership in both chambers and by the White House.

On Wednesday, the Senate took action that could augur well for Vitter’s amendment. It adopted legislation by unanimous consent that would prevent the U.S. trade representative from making deals that would preclude drug imports.

The House passed a bill virtually identical to Vitter’s measure during the last Congress, but the Senate never took up the legislation. Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) are the chief sponsors of a rival bill. Backers of drug importation, including Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), are expected to vote in favor of whatever vehicle first reaches the floor.

According to the agreement with Frist, if the Vitter amendment attracts more than 60 votes, a standalone drug-imports bill would be given floor time at a later date. If the amendment is attached to the agriculture bill, it is expected to be stripped out during conference discussions.

The pharmaceutical industry repeatedly has cautioned that drug makers cannot guarantee the safety of medicines entering the U.S. market from abroad, often citing the proliferation of counterfeiting rings and other criminal enterprises linked to the cross-border trade of prescription drugs.