Drug bust

BigPHarma kills the competitive drug provision from healthcare reform

Published December 16, 2009 9:40PM (EST)

So the Dorgan-McCain amendment in the health care reform legislation that presumably would have lowered prices per-dose or per-pill prices for prescription drug by allowing the importation of prescription meds form Canada and Western Europe was defeated 51-48 on Tuesday. As the Los Angeles Times reports:

The defeat of the drug importation proposal from a bipartisan group of lawmakers, which would have made it easier to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and Western Europe, was a crucial victory for Obama and the pharmaceutical industry.

The politically charged amendment had held up the Senate for a week and threatened to derail the whole healthcare bill.

The vote on the amendment -- cosponsored by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- was 51 to 48, nine short of the 60 needed to pass.

Even if some get mad at me for saying so, I find this more dispiriting and irksome than the failure of the public option. (He said, ducking beneath his desk as rotten fruit soars overhead.) Seriously, and not to diminish the potential benefits of the public option, or for that matter the Medicare buy-in, this concession just smacks of naked surrender to one and only one industry: Big PHarma. At least with the public option and Medicare buy-in one can point to a variety of trade associations and other groups raising various and sometimes legitimate objections or caution flags. Here it's just about maintaining ologoplistic market control for domestic drug sales. And I don't want to hear about drug safety--this is Canada and Western Europe as exporters we're talking about.

Doubly irksome is the fact this was sponsored by Dorgan--one of Obama's biggest early supporters back in Iowa in late 2007 and early 2008--and McCain, who was Obama's general election opponent. In other words, you can't even dismiss this as some purportedly looney left provision, or something Sen. Bernie Birkenstocks tried to sneak past an unwitting Senate, for Dorgan and McCain are straight out of centrist casting. (Confession: I've been licking my chops all afternoon about dropping in that last turn of a phrase.) I mean, if you can't get 60 votes for something supported by two senators of good faith who are viewed as decent brokers for centrists in their respective parties--and who supposedly hold sway on such things--well, then that just testifies to the powers allayed against that provision.

Triply irksome is that one of the key powers allayed against it, in the end, was Obama himself. He reversed field once the pharmas threatened to withdraw support for the overall package. I know, I know: realpolitik means cutting the deals to get the overall package thru, and "everybody can't get everything they want," as the refrain this week goes. But c'mon: this is a perfect example of the "special interest politics" for which "hope and change" was very expressly and quite repeated promised as--can't help myself again--the antidote.

Quadruply irksome, but not at all surprising? This release from MAPlight.org, showing that senators who opposed allowing imports received on average 66 percent more in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry than those who voted for the amending to allow imports; among Democrats only, the figure is even a big higher (70 percent).

I've got a headache. Can somebody mail me an cheap bottle of aspirin from Toronto?

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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