Sen. Dorgan faces powerful opponent on drug reimportation

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) faces a powerful opponent if he brings up drug reimportation as an amendment to the food safety bill.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the House sponsor of the food safety bill, told The Hill that he’s dead-set against the amendment, which he claims could derail the whole food safety effort.

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“I wonder if he is trying to kill the bill,” Dingell said of Dorgan. “He ought to belong to a body that knows how to legislate, or he ought to introduce his own bill and get it through the Senate and stay off this bill.”

Adding to the charged politics is the widespread assumption that the Obama administration, which has made food safety a priority, may intervene behind the scenes against the amendment. The measure would allow the importation of drugs that are sold in countries such as Canada for much cheaper than they are in the U.S.

Dorgan tells The Hill the food safety bill is probably his last, best chance to get the drug provision passed before he retires from Congress at the end of this session.

The measure has broad support in both chambers – it got 51 votes in the Senate last year, including 23 Republicans - and Dorgan said he would ask the White House to support the measure when the food bill hits the Senate floor.

Powerful people may oppose the measure, Dorgan acknowledged, but “there are a couple of powerful reasons to do it,” including the fact that it would make life-saving drugs more affordable and would save the federal government $100 billion over 10 years according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“I can’t control what John Dingell thinks or feels about this,” he said.

The Senate is expected to pick up its version of the food safety bill, sponsored by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), shortly. Dingell’s bill passed the House 283-142 last July.

Dingell has been frustrated with the Senate’s slow pace in taking up the food safety measure, and he is a longtime opponent of drug reimportation.

“It will allow this country to be flooded with unsafe, counterfeit drugs, drugs that will not do what they should, drugs that are unsafe, drugs that will kill the American people,” he said in 2003 of a similar measure. “I tell you, it is a bad bill.”

That’s also the position of the drug industry, which says reimportation is unsafe because of widespread counterfeiting and the fact that even legitimate foreign drugs are often not approved by federal regulators. The industry adds that the measure is especially ill-timed since many Americans are gaining access to affordable healthcare thanks to the new health reform law.

In a statement, Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said: “It is unfortunate that unsafe prescription drug importation schemes are being pushed at a time when tens of millions of Americans are gaining access to affordable healthcare coverage, services and treatments through the new health care reform law.”

Dorgan said the safety of the reimported drugs would be ensured under his amendment and that even drugs sold domestically would be subject to higher safety standards than they are now.

The drug reimportation amendment failed 51 to 48, short of the 60 votes needed to proceed to a final vote, when Dorgan tried to attach it to the healthcare reform legislation last December. The White House was reported to have been against the amendment to help to preserve the drug industry’s support of health reform.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Officials with the Health and Human Services Department and the Food and Drug Administration, when asked if the Obama administration would try to scuttle the amendment to the food safety bill, said “no comment.”

President Barack Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel were strong supporters of the measure when they served in Congress, and Dorgan said they have no reason to oppose it this time.

“This is a different time and a different circumstance” than the health reform vote, he said.