Senate Republicans criticize Obama as drug reimportation amendment fails

Republicans are slamming President Obama for his silence on drug reimportation legislation, claiming he has broken his campaign promise to allow seniors to buy cheaper medications from other countries.

The pharmaceutical industry strongly opposes the idea, which failed again in the Senate on Thursday. Reimportation was kept out of the 2003 bill that created Medicare Part D and the 2010 healthcare law, though as a senator, Obama had co-sponsored a measure to allow it.

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Ahead of votes, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the policy was collateral in negotiations to get industry's buy-in on the Affordable Care Act.

"[Obama] shouldn't have made a deal with the pharmaceutical companies on ObamaCare two years ago," he said.

"We'd be importing drugs already. He's two years late," Grassley said.

The deal was negotiated by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and White House officials and announced by President Obama in June 2009. The pharmaceutical industry agreed to contribute $80 billion over 10 years to help pay for the overhaul.

An amendment allowing drug imports from approved pharmacies in Canada, authored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), failed Thursday as the chamber completed work on a must-pass Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bill.

McCain said that Obama has shown no leadership on the issue.

"No, of course not," he told The Hill. "They haven't said a word."

The amendment failed 43-54.

He added: "If the administration strongly supported [reimportation], obviously it would make a big difference." 

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Obama endorsed reimportation during his campaign for president in 2008 but has stepped back from the issue since, arguing that it might compromise drug safety.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said on the floor Thursday that McCain's amendment would "put Americans at risk."

"It would undermine the FDA's authority and have a devastating ripple effect on the country's drug supply," he said.

Ahead of the vote, McCain said: "What you're about to see is the reason for the cynicism the American people have about Washington."

The pharmaceutical industry "has proven its influence again at the expense of average, low-income Americans that will again have to choose between [purchasing medications] and eating," he said. 

The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2009 that reimportation would save the government $19 billion over 10 years.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who supported reimportation, said at the time that it would save consumers an additional $80 billion.

Grassley said that Canadians pay 52.5 percent less for prescription drugs than Americans do.

He called reimportation a "free-trade issue" in a floor statement.

"Imports create competition and keep domestic industry more responsive to consumers," he said. "Consumers in the United States pay far more for prescription drugs than those in other countries."  

Updated at 3:08 p.m.