Handing senior citizens a bitter pill, U.S. Sens. Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne voted to protect an important stomach drug from competition from generic manufacturers, advocates for the elderly say.
In early December, the Idaho Republicans switched their votes on a 49-48 roll call that gave Glaxo Wellcome Inc., a British drug company, another 18 months of patent protection on Zantac.
Zantac users now pay $1.50 per pill, about twice the cost of generic versions that won’t be allowed until July of 1997 under the vote that Craig and Kempthorne helped produce.
“I think they’ve done a very big disservice to the people who elected them,” said Louise Gillespie, director of the Lake City Senior Center in Coeur d’Alene. Medications such as Zantac are so expensive that “a lot of people have to choose between food and medication.”
One of her clients “does without a lot of other things in order to pay for it (because) he has to take it to eat.”
Gillespie spends more than $100 a month on Zantac. But it makes it possible for her to take two other important medications that otherwise would set her stomach on fire.
“I’ve got seniors taking three and four types of medication,” Gillespie said. “Zantac makes it possible for them to take the medication they need to take, eat the food they need to eat and feel comfortable.”
Some people take the drug, a super-antacid, simply because their stomachs become more sensitive to a variety of foods as they age, she said.
Gillespie estimates one-third of the more than 200 people a day who visit the Lake City Senior Center use Zantac. More than 60 percent of the 89 homebound seniors her agency delivers meals to also take the drug.
Craig and Kempthorne’s vote defeated an amendment that would have stopped the extra patent protection for 26 additional prescription products.
In a weekend column in The Idaho Statesman, Dan Popkey reported that some Idahoans accuse Craig and Kempthorne of voting for the British drugmaker because of the company’s $441,319 in political donations last year, 60 percent of which went to GOP candidates.
The Democrat who is running against Craig in next year’s election, Walt Minnick, this week called it “another example of powerful special interests buying influence” and said the elderly suffer.
“Our politicians give us ulcers; now they’re taking away our ability to afford relief,” said Minnick.
Craig and Kempthorne said in the column they feel for consumers but fear taking drug company property rights. Neither could explain why the action was a “taking.”
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m not that clear,” Craig said.
Senior citizen advocates in Idaho say extending the patents, requiring people to use more expensive prescription drugs and not their generic equivalents, will cost Idaho residents more than $10 million in the next 20 months.
That includes an estimated $9.3 million to taxpayers and $1 million extra to buy three major drugs for Medicaid patients.
That covers Zantac, $778,459; an anxiety compound, Buspar, $77,050, and Capoten, a heart medicine, $35,973.
Glaxo’s U.S. headquarters is in North Carolina. Popkey reported that Republican Sen. Jesse Helms pressured Kempthorne and Craig to change their votes and keep the amending legislation from a Senate vote.
Craig’s press office in Washington, D.C., couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Kempthorne Press Secretary Mark Snider said the senator voted the way he did because he agrees “this is an issue that needs a full public hearing.”
Snider said Kempthorne was promised by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Judiciary Committee chairman, that hearings would be held within 120 days.
“Kempthorne took Hatch at his word and agreed that a hearing is necessary,” Snider said.
Kempthorne was unconcerned about the delay in allowing generic Zantac compounds. “It doesn’t hurt anybody to have hearings. I don’t think four months is that extreme.”
A mistake in drafting the GATT treaty on world trade extends patent protection for 27 prescription drugs, including Zantac. So far, the Senate has rejected efforts to pass an amendment that would change that. The measure could come up again this week.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Staff and wire reports Staff writer Ken Olsen contributed to this report.