Gutknecht pressing to allow imported prescription drugs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 23, 2003

U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht is hoping to force the costs of prescription drugs in the United States down with a new bill.

&uot;The fact is Americans pay too damn much for their prescription drugs, and the pharmaceuticals don’t want to do anything about it,&uot; Gutknecht said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.

The bill would allow U.S. residents to buy drugs from foreign countries, most of which, he said, have much lower prices on their drugs.

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The Rochester Republican’s bill is likely to come up for a vote this week, possibly Thursday. The drug industry loudly opposes the legislation, because it would give American consumers and pharmacists access to lower-priced, FDA-approved drugs in Canada and other countries where the government controls prices.

An industry trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has been running ads in The Washington Post and other newspapers arguing that Gutknecht’s bill would put American consumers at risk of counterfeit and contaminated drugs.

&uot;This is legislation that should be dead in the water,&uot; said Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for the group, known as PHRMA. &uot;When a U.S. company exports a drug, it loses the chain of custody. Even in developed countries, we don’t always know if it’s stored properly.&uot;

He noted that the Food and Drug Administration said it couldn’t certify the safety of drugs coming from across the border.

Gutknecht contends that the group isn’t so much worried about the consumer’s health, but instead their pocketbooks.

&uot;They are attempting to make this into an issue that it really isn’t,&uot; he said. &uot;Right now the only consumers in the world that are held captive are American consumers.&uot;

Gutknecht said his legislation calls for tamperproof and counterfeit-proof packaging, and allows importation only of FDA-approved drugs from FDA-approved facilities in 25 countries.

Many of the research costs for drug development, Gutknecht said, are paid for by American taxpayers. Ultimately, he added, it is other countries that get the lower drug prices.

&uot;We shouldn’t be subsidizing the starving Swiss,&uot; he said.

The United States pays 10 to 50 percent higher costs on prescription drugs. Gutknecht argues that these high prices are even higher when the tax money spent on drug research is taken into account.

&uot;The latest AIDS medication costs an American patient $21,000 per year,&uot; he said. &uot;But taxpayers paid to develop it.&uot;

The drug companies say lowering costs isn’t as easy as it may seem.

However, PHRMA argues that the lower drug prices would ultimately lead to fewer breakthrough drugs because pharmaceutical companies would not be able to recoup the costs of developing the medications.

&uot;We don’t want someone else’s failed price controls to stifle the most innovative pharmaceutical industry in the world,&uot; said Trewhitt. &uot;We still have marketplace incentives.&uot;

Gutknecht said he used to be impressed with that argument, but no longer buys it because of the amount of money the drug industry spends on marketing and advertising.

Trewhitt said the industry spent $19 billion in marketing and advertising in 2001, but said about half of that was for free samples. The industry spent about $30 billion on research and development that year, he said.

Gutknecht said he doesn’t aim to put the companies out of business, but rather to put their prices within range.

&uot;When markets are open, the prices will level,&uot; he said.

Pharmaceutical companies have hundreds of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Gutknecht and his bill are sure underdogs in the vote, but he is still confident.

&uot;I’m going up against a huge army,&uot; he said. &uot;But if members vote their conscience, we’ll win this vote.&uot;

(Contact Peter Cox at peter.cox or 379-3439. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)