Obama Restricts Access to Cheaper Prescription Drugs

When President Obama signed the health care bill on March 23, 2010, he promised it would provide affordable access to health care for all Americans, but with it, he is actively restricting U.S. consumers’ access to safe, affordable drugs from abroad.

Obama voted for legalizing the import of prescription drugs from Canada when he was Illinois Senator and supported legalizing drug import from Canada as part of his presidential campaign platform, but has reneged on those promises due largely to back-room deals struck with big PhRMA, or the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry’s leading lobbyist group.

The big winners of the new health care bill: the $300 billion U.S. pharmaceutical industry, expected to rake in record profits as tens of millions of currently uninsured Americans sign up for health care plans and give the drug industry new business.

During the formation of the health care bill, the drug industry unleashed more than 1,100 lobbyists on Washington, D.C., working hard to make sure pharmaceutical companies continued to profit in the aftermath of the bill. The industry spent $188 million on lobbying in 2009 alone, directed $1.2 million to Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and donated $5 million toward candidates in early 2010, 56 percent of which were Democrats. The pharmaceutical industry rallied its support for the bill by spending $67 million on TV ads since early 2009, which accounts for 25 percent of total advertising behind the bill. 

And the heavy lobbying and advertising paid off. Though the drug industry agreed to some cuts in drug prices, including helping close the donut hole of Medicare coverage, the industry is slated to pick up tens of millions of new customers, as the bill mandates coverage for the estimated 32 million Americans that are currently uninsured. Even with the industry providing 50 percent cuts in the donut hole, they will profit from tens of millions of new customers purchasing drugs due to new federal subsidies, mandatory coverage and discounted donut hole prices.  

In the end, the cost of the new healthcare system will not be shouldered by big drug companies, who can afford it, but by the consumers themselves, who are hit by a recession and prevented by the government from obtaining affordable drugs.  

After the health care reform bill passed, PhRMA made the following statement, “We remain committed to health care reform done in a fair and smart way. We continue to believe that all Americans should have access to high-quality, affordable health care coverage and services,” leaving out mention of continued high prices to American consumers, or the 12 years of market exclusivity for expensive brand-name drugs.  This means the U.S. consumer will be paying top dollar for the next 12 years before companies can make generic versions, which would slash prices for everyday Americans.  

The government had a chance to reverse this trend, but it didn’t take it. Congress rejected a proposal by Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota to allow Americans to buy safe brand name drugs from abroad, a plan that would save the federal government $10.4 billion over the next 10 years according to The Congressional Budget Office. Dorgan’s plan contained measures to protect U.S. consumers against drug counterfeiting and other risky drug practices that could be dangerous for the consumer.

In a March 2010 Congressional hearing, Dorgan said the high-cholesterol-fighting drug Lipitor, which millions of Americans depend on daily, is sold at up to three times the price in the United States than in other countries. “Why should Americans not have access to that F.D.A.-approved drug?” Dorgan said. 

Dorgan’s measure received a majority vote in the Senate, with 51-48 vote for its passage, but the amendment required 60 votes for adoption. 

A similar amendment that would have legalized imports pending a safety clearance from the F.D.A. also failed, with a 56-43 vote. F.D.A. head Margaret Hamburg, commissioner at the agency, said in the same hearing that the agency dedicates $5 million each year for an import strategy for foreign food and drugs. She reported that the agency has opened foreign offices in countries like China, India, Mexico and Italy. In addition, the F.D.A. received a bump up in their budget for 2011, proposing a $4 billion budget that reflects a $789 million increase from the year before.

The capability to safely import drugs is clearly there, but U.S. leaders have repeatedly chosen to side with the interests of the deep-pocketed big drug industry over the interests of U.S. consumers. 

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