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Effort expected on drug import laws

WASHINGTON – Efforts to allow Americans access to cheaper prescription drugs from abroad should blossom once Democrats assume control in Congress, but it won’t be a top priority, lawmakers and health care experts said.

Members of the House and Senate are gearing up for a renewed push to change federal law and permit broader imports of prescription drugs from Canada and elsewhere, where certain medicines can cost less than two-thirds what they do in the United States. Their hope is the imports will drive down prices at home.

“The pressure is not to tell people you have to go outside this country to buy prescription drugs. The pressure is to force the pharmaceutical companies to re-price their drugs in the U.S.,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who has introduced with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a bill to make importation of prescription drugs legal.

The issue remains overwhelmingly popular with voters, even though the government estimates it would do little to actually cut the prices Americans pay for prescription drugs. And there is continued opposition to imported drugs as well.

Still, Republicans and Democrats alike see the shift in control of Congress as an opportunity to advance previously blocked legislation. The issue generally is called reimportation, since many of the medicines are made in the United States or by U.S. companies.

“Things were headed in the right direction with reimportation to begin with, but the election will speed up that process because it’s removed leadership that was opposed to reimportation. I am a Republican and support leadership in general, but on reimportation, they were opposed to it,” said Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana.

Vitter and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., recently sponsored legislation to halt the seizures of imported Canadian drugs for personal use – something the government now allows only on a limited basis.

Nelson wants to either bar the use of government funds to enforce the rules or authorize the import of drugs certified as safe from Canada and select other countries on a case-by-case basis, spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.

The drug industry, which generally opposes such legislation, is bracing for an onslaught.

“I don’t think there’s any question there will be renewed attempts to pass reimportation legislation in the new Congress. It’s a fight that’s been going on for years now. Given the new leadership and its priorities, we expect it to pop up again,” said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

But don’t hold your breath, said Drew Altman, president and chief executive officer of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care research organization. Imported drug legislation is not at the top of Democratic leadership’s list of priorities. And Bush, who’s also raised questions about the safety of imported drugs, could veto legislation to make it happen.