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Senators agree? Glory be!

By Carol Gentry
12/16/2009 © Health News Florida

Florida’s two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican George LeMieux, don’t agree on much when it comes to health reform. But on Tuesday night, they voted together in a failing bid to allow importation of prescription drugs.

The amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) received a majority of votes, 51-48, but failed because it required 60 votes to pass. It would have become a part of the larger health-reform package in the Senate.

Nelson, a co-sponsor of the bill, bucked his party’s leaders by continuing to back it after Pres. Obama said it might provoke the pharmaceutical industry to walk away from the agreement on health reform.

Backers of the amendment said it could save U.S. consumers as much as $80 billion over a decade, since prices for the same drugs are much lower in Canada, Europe and other countries. But the pharmaceutical industry warned that if U.S. prices fell there would not be enough money for cutting-edge research.

Drug importation was one of the rare issues in health reform that drew bipartisan support. (See list of how all senators voted). 

The amendment would have made it impractical for the pharmaceutical industry to continue charging U.S. citizens a lot higher prices for prescription drugs than those in other industrialized countries pay. Currently, other countries negotiate on behalf of their citizens to get good deals, but the U.S. has never done that.

As part of the health-reform deal that brought the pharmaceutical industry to the table, Pres. Obama agreed not to proceed with efforts to negotiate prices or allow importation of drugs from other countries where prices are lower.

In other action Tuesday, Nelson drew praise from AARP State Director Lori Parham for committing the Senate to closing the “doughnut hole” in Medicare drug coverage. Parham said 300,000 Florida Medicare beneficiaries fall into that coverage gap each year. The U.S. House already has voted to close the gap.

Parham said, “AARP members will be watching the health-care reform legislation closely to ensure that the Senate honors its commitment.”  

More information on the drug-importation debate is available at the Wall Street Journal online. 

--Carol Gentry, Editor, can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.