Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias Sen. Tim Johnson is sponsoring a campaign trip � not through the heartland of South Dakota, but to Canada.

Johnson is sponsoring the trip to spotlight the difference between drug prices charged in South Dakota and Canada.

�Nobody in the world pays as much for prescription drugs as Americans do,� said Johnson during a Tuesday morning stop at the senior citizens center in Mitchell. �We pay about twice as much as the rest of the world.�

Johnson said Americans who purchase prescription drugs in Canada can reduce their expenses by as much as 50 percent, and senior citizens buy about 35 percent of prescription drugs sold in the United States.

About 30 people signed up for the two-day Canada bus trip. The group left Sioux Falls at 9 a.m. Thursday, and the bus stopped in Brookings and Watertown to pick up passengers. They returned to South Dakota Friday evening.

You can�t argue with Johnson�s claim that prescription drug prices are higher here than in Canada. It�s a well known fact that members of Congress have used to make political hay for years now. That�s why the bus trip seems to be simply a campaign stunt. Johnson has every right to send senior citizens to Canada to help demonstrate drug price differences. To be fair to us voters, however, he should put this issue in proper context.

He should explain, for instance, that past efforts to allow cheaper prescription drugs to flow into the U.S. from Canada were stopped by the president and administration.

And he should mention that the president wasn�t Bush. It was Clinton.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in December 2000 that it would not implement an election-year law meant to enable cheaper prescription drugs to flow in from Canada, agreeing with critics that the law had �serious flaws and loopholes.�

The legislation would have allowed drug stores and distributors to buy drugs in Canada that had been manufactured in the United States and resell them to Americans. Approved by the U.S. Congress just weeks before the November 2000 U.S. election day, the legislation was an attempt to address the clamor for cheaper prescription drugs � particularly among the elderly � as lawmakers were unable to agree on a more sweeping plan to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare.

But the legislation directed the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary to review the measure and determine whether it was cost effective and safe. In a letter to President Clinton, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala said it was neither.

�I feel compelled to inform you that the flaws and loopholes contained ? make it impossible for me to demonstrate that it is safe and cost effective,� she wrote. �As such, I cannot sanction the allocation of taxpayer dollars to implement such a system.�

Accordingly, she said she would not request the $23 million available to establish a system for overseeing the importation of drugs from Canada. She added that the law could never replace a Medicare prescription drug option.

Johnson recently supported three proposals designed to lower prescription drug costs. Two proposals passed from the Senate to the House of Representatives. The first increases access to generic drugs, and a second allows re-importation of lower-priced drugs from Canada. Under the second proposal, pharmacists in the United States could order prescription drugs from a Canadian supplier and resell them in this country. Present law only allows manufacturers to re-import drugs into the United States.

A third proposal would add a prescription benefit to Medicare coverage, but his Medicare proposal was stalled in the Senate during July.

While complaining about the cheaper drug prices in Canada, Johnson would do well to explain why a Democratic administration gave a big thumbs down to Congress� efforts in 2000 to bring those cheaper Canadian drugs here. And it�s incumbent upon us, as voters, to make sure that the proposals currently supported by Johnson don�t contain those same flaws that Shalala mentioned in her letter.

Shalala argued that under the 2000 plan, there�s no guarantee that imported drugs will carry labels approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, raising safety issues. And she complained that the plan did nothing to keep drug manufacturers from strong-arming distributors into raising prices on imported drugs.

Johnson, who has been hammering us with campaign ads claiming that he refuses to take money from the pharmaceutical industry and who has made lowering the cost of prescriptions for South Dakota seniors a top priority, also needs to convince us that his stance has the muster to withstand debate on Capitol Hill.

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