Although it has gone relatively unnoticed amid all the
financial turmoil, it recently emerged that Sens. Obama and McCain are
reconsidering their views on prescription drug importation. While neither
candidate has officially reversed his position, it's now clear that both
campaigns recognize the dangers associated with the practice.
This is great news, as those dangers are both real and
numerous. And the oft-touted benefit of importation -- namely that it will
reduce healthcare spending -- has been thoroughly discredited.
To start, let's take a look at spending. While advocates of
drug importation routinely trumpet a 2004 Congressional Budget Office report
which estimated that legalized importation could save $50 billion over 10
years, they fail to mention that that represents just a 1 percent reduction in
total drug spending.
That's not to mention the as-yet-unknown cost of providing
the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the resources necessary to monitor
drugs coming in from other countries. As it is, the FDA is poorly equipped to
oversee drug safety.
Just this year, for example, tainted shipments of the blood
thinner Heparin slipped past the FDA and made it to the American market,
killing at least 81 people. Legalizing drug importation would only make another
tragedy like this more likely.
Many supporters of importation believe that, so long as the
drugs come in from safe, developed countries like Canada and Britain, the
threat of importing tainted drugs is minimal. But that's simply not true.
Because of parallel trade agreements among the European
Union's member states, drugs purchased from a pharmacy in Britain or France
could easily have originated in Latvia, Malta, Cyprus or another country with a
less-than-ideal regulatory system.
And, as for buying drugs from Canada, that's hardly a safe
bet either. So long as a drug is sent to Canada for "export only,"
it's not subject to the Canadian regulatory system. So drugs coming out of
Canada could easily originate in Europe, China, or India.
Given these risks and the lack of cost-savings, it's
unsurprising that state-level programs legalizing drug importation have been
enormously unpopular. In Illinois, for instance, Governor Rod Blagojevich
initiated the "I-Save-Rx" program, which allowed residents to purchase
prescription drugs from Canada. Ending after only 19 months, the program was an
unmitigated embarrassment for the Governor, with only .02 percent of Illinois
A similar importation program in Boston proved equally
unpopular. Just the other week, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced that
the program -- which he spearheaded in the 2004 -- will soon be suspended. At
the time of the announcement, only 16 eligible Bostonians were receiving drugs
But there are more than health and safety concerns
surrounding prescription drug importation -- it's also a national security
issue. According to a recent report for the Federal Joint Terrorism Task Force,
a pro-Hezbollah terrorist group has already been caught moving prescription
drugs through Canada and into the U.S. In other words, legalizing drug
importation would make it easier for our enemies to attack us by flooding the
U.S. market with contaminated prescription drugs.
Legalized importation would create massive health and safety
risk and put unbearable financial strain on the already-underfunded FDA -- all
while failing to save the American public much money. It's easy to see why both
Barack Obama and John McCain, after years of public support for drug
importation, are beginning to quietly back away from the issue.