Why the Senate Rejected This Drug Pricing Amendment

January 12th 2017

An amendment that would have allowed the U.S. to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and other countries failed to garner enough votes in the Senate to pass, on Wednesday.

Despite bipartisan support for drug pricing reform, the amendment — introduced by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — was shot down by 52 senators, including some progressives such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

pain-killersFlickr/Marko Javorac - flickr.com

The measure was meant to drive down drug costs in the U.S., where patients are charged up to six times as much for the same medications sold across the border. Sanders tweeted Wednesday that this was "not a radical idea" and noted that 72 percent of Americans favor importing pharmaceuticals, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Before the Senate voted on the amendment, Sanders took the floor and blamed lobbying efforts by the pharmaceutical industry for blocking drug pricing reform. He said President-elect Donald Trump was right when he claimed the pharmaceutical industry was "getting away with murder," during his press conference Wednesday.

Part of the reason drug prices are lower in countries like Canada is that the government is able to directly negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, whereas the U.S. is prohibited by law from doing so even though the U.S. spends billions each year on medications for federal programs such as Medicaid. Allowing imports from Canada wouldn't solve America's drug pricing problems, but it could put pressure on companies to lower costs.

Surprisingly, Sanders' amendment failed after 52 senators cast opposing votes, including 13 Democrats. Jezebel pointed out that several Democrats who opposed the amendment have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from pharmaceutical companies from 2010 to 2016. ATTN: reached out to Booker's office for clarification on his vote but has not heard back yet.

A spokesperson for Booker's office sent this statement to Jezebel, citing safety reasons:

"Any plan to allow the importation of prescription medications should also include consumer protections that ensure foreign drugs meet American safety standards. I opposed an amendment put forward last night that didn’t meet this test. The rising cost of medications is a life-and-death issue for millions of Americans, which is why I also voted for amendments last night that bring drug prices down and protect Medicare’s prescription drug benefit. I‎’m committed to finding solutions that allow for prescription drug importation with adequate safety standards."

That stance has been criticized by reform advocates who point out that there is limited evidence supporting the idea that Canadian prescription drugs are less safe than those approved in America. What's more, the safety argument has been adopted by the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying arm, The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which has claimed that "foreign governments will not ensure that prescription drugs entering the U.S. from abroad are safe and effective," as The Intercept reported Thursday.

"The Democratic Party has got to stand up to the greed of the pharmaceutical industry," Sanders said in a press release emailed to ATTN:. "I intend to be speaking to every Democrat who voted against the amendment to find out their concerns and look forward to them joining us in the future to help make prescription drugs more affordable."

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