WASHINGTON (AP) House and Senate Republicans reached an agreement that would allow Americans to legally bring a 90 day supply of prescription medications back across the border from Canada.
Shopping for drugs in Canada has become popular with U.S. consumers. The cost of many popular brand name prescription drugs can be 30% to 80% lower in Canada than in the U.S. because of government price controls, surveys by The Associated Press and others have shown.
The agreement, reached Thursday as part of a Homeland Security spending bill that is moving through Congress, would prohibit U.S. Customs agents from seizing up to 90 day supplies of prescribed medicines being brought into the U.S. from Canada.
Purchasing cheaper prescriptions over the Internet or by mail-order from Canadian pharmacies still would be prohibited, officials said.
``This really breaks the dam, and it shows that it's only a matter of time before we pass a full blown reimportation bill,'' Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said of the agreement, which came together on the same day that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced it plans to slash prices for generic prescriptions.
President Bush, like President Clinton, has rejected repeated congressional efforts to lift the ban on prescription drug imports. While importing drugs into the United States is illegal, the Food and Drug Administration generally has not stopped small amounts of medicine purchased for personal use.
However, Customs officials last November began intercepting prescription drugs coming across the border. Since then, Customs and Border Protection agents have seized more than 34,000 packages of drugs coming into the country.
A pre-election controversy over that enforcement policy threatened to split House GOP leaders who oppose lifting the import ban and rank and file Republican lawmakers who want to help elderly voters buy cheaper drugs.
Democrats who pushed for broader access to imported drugs accused Republicans of trying to ``blow smoke to the voters about cheaper prescription prices when it really doesn't do much of anything,'' said Dan McLaughlin, spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. ``It really doesn't help very many people.''
The FDA has argued that it cannot guarantee the safety of imported drugs. Representatives for the pharmaceutical industry said Canadian Internet pharmacies, for example, have been known to sell fake and potentially unsafe medicines to unknowing American consumers through other countries.
``Americans should look at much safer alternatives that already exist and are proving to be incredibly effective here at home,'' said Ken Johnson, senior vice president for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, brand name drugs cost, on average, 35% to 55% less in other industrialized nations than they do in the United States. Supporters of importing drugs contend that the U.S. is subsidizing the cost of medicine for the rest of the world.