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Envoy: Canada can’t fix U.S. medical woes

 (The Spokesman-Review)
McKenna (The Spokesman-Review)
Martin Crutsinger Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Canada can’t solve the U.S. problem of providing low-cost prescription drugs, its ambassador said Monday in an interview with the Associated Press.

Ambassador Frank McKenna said the Canadian government feels caught in the middle of the debate in Washington over whether to expand the ability to import prescription drugs from Canada, where they often are sold for less than in the United States.

Various bills have been introduced in Congress to permit importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and elsewhere, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it cannot vouch for the safety of drugs purchased from Canada.

McKenna dismissed concerns about the safety of drugs sold in Canada, saying Canada’s regulatory regime is tougher than the U.S. one. But he conceded that companies from all over the world could be using Canadian Internet sites to sell drugs into the United States, an activity that is not as easy to police.

He said the debate over whether to expand drug sales from Canada into the United States masks a bigger issue of how prescription drug prices should be set in the United States.

“Don’t think you are doing any favors to us by trying to open the U.S. market for Canadian drugs because you are not,” he said in the interview. “If you are doing that, you are doing it for your own reasons, and you are avoiding dealing with the fundamental question of your drug pricing.”

Last month, House Democrats outlined a health care agenda that would permit importation of prescription drugs from Canada and other nations, subject to safety regulations, and would give Medicare the authority to negotiate lower prices with drug manufacturers in the United States.

McKenna said the Canadian government intends to make it very clear in the debate over drug imports that Canada’s drug supply poses no health risks.

“We don’t want the reputation of our pharmaceutical sector sullied by attacks from the United States of America saying that re-imported drugs aren’t safe,” he said.

McKenna has been Canada’s ambassador to Washington for only three months, arriving at a delicate time in bilateral relations after the government of Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin rejected the Bush administration’s offer to be part of a North American missile defense shield.

The ambassador said he and Bush discussed the issue during their first meeting, and he said the president understood the political pressures that influenced Martin’s decision.

Touching on other subjects in the wide-ranging interview, McKenna said it is important to make sure that disputes over such issues as mad cow disease and softwood lumber do not adversely impact other issues.

He said Canada will not close its border to U.S. beef imports despite last week’s announcement that a new case of mad cow disease may have been discovered in the United States. He contrasted Canada’s reaction to the situation in the United States, where live beef imports from Canada still are banned because of opposition from a “rogue group” of U.S. ranchers, McKenna said.

The U.S. border was scheduled to reopen in March to live cattle shipments from Canada, but a federal judge in Billings, Mont., ordered it to be kept closed at the request of American ranchers suing to block Canadian cattle imports.

“The judge’s injunction is costing billions and billions of dollars and thousands of lost jobs,” McKenna said, because workers at U.S. beef-packing plants are being laid off while employment at Canadian plants is increasing.

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