Pharmaceutical deal holding up bipartisan health amendment

A deal between the White House and the pharmaceutical industry is holding up a bipartisan amendment to allow the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from abroad, according to a member of the Senate Democratic leadership.

The Senate has been debating the amendment, sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), since Tuesday but has not held a vote, which is contributing to a stall in the floor action on healthcare reform.

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Dorgan’s measure, which would permit bulk exports of medicines from countries such as Canada, enjoys broad and bipartisan support and likely has the backing of more than 60 senators, which would guarantee its adoption on the healthcare reform bill.

Tension between the White House and Democratic supporters of the so-called drug reimportation amendment is primarily behind the delay, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Thursday.

“There’s a political subtext here,” Durbin said. “It has to do with whether or not we can do it as part of the impact on pharma in this bill and whether or not there are other things that are higher priorities.”

The White House and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) struck a deal this summer to limit the drug industry’s financial exposure under reform to $80 billion over 10 years, though its terms have never been fully disclosed.

President Barack Obama was one of the 35 co-sponsors of Dorgan’s drug reimportation legislation when Obama served in the Senate. In addition, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was a leading supporter of the House version of the bill when he served in the lower chamber.

“Many of us support it but wonder if this is the right venue,” Durbin said, but “we don’t want to slow down this bill or stop it over what is an important issue but, I think, takes second place to the overall healthcare reform.”

Asked Wednesday whether the Democratic leadership was whipping its members to support or oppose the Dorgan amendment, Durbin said, “Well, we asked. There was a question asked of members through staff as to how they were inclined but it isn’t like we’re buttonholing people, yes or no, and saying, ‘Vote the other way.’ ”

Several Democratic senators are objecting to moving ahead with the vote because they believe the amendment has enough support to prevail, said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Dorgan’s lead co-sponsor.

“I suspect we haven't had a vote yet because they know it has the votes to pass,” she said.

Democratic senators from states home to pharmaceutical companies, including Tom Carper (Del.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.), object to the amendment, citing concerns about ensuring the safety of medicines entering the U.S. supply chain from foreign sources. Congress Daily has reported that Carper placed a hold on the amendment, but his office refused to comment to The Hill.

The Dorgan amendment is co-sponsored by 19 senators, including Snowe and John McCain (R-Ariz.), who have been leading the floor debate. On Thursday evening, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Lautenberg had offered an alternative to the Dorgan amendment; both amendments will come to a vote at the same time, Reid said.

The Obama administration has sent out mixed messages about drug reimportation this week.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs insisted Tuesday that Obama has not changed his stance. “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.”

The same day, however, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, an Obama appointee, issued a letter to senators saying her agency believed Dorgan’s amendment would endanger the U.S. medicine supply and be difficult to enforce. “There are significant safety concerns,” Hamburg wrote. The Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA issued similar cautions during the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations.

The message did not seem mixed to McCain, whom Obama defeated in the race for the White House last year. “The fix is in,” he said.

The White House’s unusual alliance with PhRMA has proved a mixed blessing for Democrats.

At a minimum, the arrangement between the White House, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and PhRMA neutralized a powerful potential opponent. At best, the partnership could provide Democrats with a deep-pocketed ally as their quest for healthcare reform reaches its final stages.

But the handshake deal between the White House and PhRMA also angered powerful congressional Democratic committee chairmen and rank-and-file lawmakers who want to take aim at the drug industry on issues such as drug reimportation and Medicare payment rates for pharmaceuticals.

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