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Senate Rejects Drug Imports from Canada

Janice Simmons, for HealthLeaders Media, December 16, 2009

Taking a break from the debate on the Senate floor on Tuesday afternoon, the Democratic leaders visited the White House to discuss the current healthcare reform bill efforts. The meeting with the senators was not a "roll call vote," President Obama emphasized in a briefing afterward, but "a broad-based discussion of how we move forward."

"We are on the precipice of an achievement that has eluded Congresses and presidents for decades," Obama said.

No mentions were made of Medicare buy-ins or government alternatives to private insurance, but he did focus on what would happen "if we don't get this done"--citing rising premiums, more employers dropping coverage, and Medicare "blowing a hole" in the budget.

Meanwhile, on the Senate floor later on Tuesday, four amendments were brought up for a vote:

Drug reimportation. After waiting for almost a week for a vote, the amendment introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) calling for the legalized importation of prescription medicine from Canada and other countries failed to win approval in a 51-48 vote (with 60 votes required for approval). Dorgan, who said the motion would save $100 million over the next 10 years, received support from both sides of the aisle. He has been trying to pass similar legislation for more than 10 years. In earlier floor debate on Tuesday, Dorgan said arguments about the amendment lacking safety controls for reimportation were "unbelievably bogus."

Approval of the amendment could have jeopardized the overall support for the bill from the pharmaceutical industry, which has pledged $80 billion over the next decade toward reform efforts. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg wrote senators last week saying that she thought the proposal could make it easier for counterfeit drugs to enter the county.

Drug reimportation (again). A substitute amendment proposed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D NJ) was also turned down 56-43. Lautenberg's bill was similar to Dorgan's, but it added provisions that the secretary of Health and Human Services would first certify that such imports were safe and would decrease costs.

"As much as we want to cut costs for consumers, we cannot afford to cut corners and risk exposing Americans to drugs that are ineffective or unsafe." Lautenberg said.

Remit to Finance Committee. An amendment by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) to send the Senate reform bill back to the Senate Finance Committee failed 45-54. In his floor arguments, Crapo said the Senate bill contained hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxes and fees, and that it failed to reduce costs. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) countered that Crapo's motion was "a plan to keep Americans from getting their tax cuts." Five Democrats broke ranks and voted for the bill.

Middle class protection. The Baucus amendment calling for protection of middle-class families and small businesses from possible tax increases passed 97-1. Sen. Feingold (D-WI) cast the dissenting vote.


Janice Simmons is a senior editor and Washington, DC, correspondent for HealthLeaders Media Online. She can be reached at jsimmons@healthleadersmedia.com.

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