WASHINGTON -- The House voted Wednesday to make it legal for Americans to purchase prescription drugs from foreign countries by mail order or through the Internet, a step that could lead to significant savings for older Americans who use the most prescriptions.
Thousands of Americans from California and Arizona now travel to Mexico, while residents of some northern border states, including Minnesota and Vermont, go to Canada for medicine.
If the proposal becomes law, they could forgo travel and instead legally use the Internet, the mail system or a fax machine to order FDA-approved drugs from foreign pharmacies. Many drugs sold in the United States are far less expensive in foreign countries where governments often impose price restrictions.
The measure easily passed the House by a vote of 324-101. But it faces an uncertain fate in the Senate and tough opposition from the Bush administration, with the Food and Drug Administration citing possible safety concerns for drugs ordered through the mail from abroad. And the idea poses a threat to the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, which deploys one of the richest and most powerful lobbying organizations in U.S. politics.
Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., sponsor of the measure, cited an example in which a constituent using a special ointment for a skin problem paid $130 for a tube in the United States but on a trip to Ireland bought the same medication for $46.
"The bottom line is if you are wealthy enough to travel to Europe twice a year, you can bring back all the drugs you need for the year," he said. "But if your are a senior living on a fixed income, you pay the full price.
If the measure approved by the House becomes law, "Web sites can be up and running at senior centers, connected with pharmaceutical supply businesses in Geneva or Paris," Gutknecht said. The legislation was an amendment to an appropriations bill providing funding for the FDA, which enforces drug safety laws.
Modern computer technology allows for verification that a doctor has written a prescription, that an order has been placed with a legitimate supplier, and that a package is on its way to the United States. "If we can transfer millions of dollars with the push of a button, we can do this," Gutknecht said.
But Alan F. Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, argues that the amendment "would open up the possibility for individuals to bring into the country medicines that may not be as safe or effective as they appear."
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