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Canadian Controversy: Understanding The Failed Pharmaceuticals Reform
01/17/2017 Congress Andrew S
keywords: ACA Pharmaceuticals Reform

From the Affordable Care Act to birth control coverage to Medicare funding fears, healthcare issues continue to dominate US politics. Chief among these issues is the high cost of pharmaceuticals in the United States, which many blame for high US health spending overall. A recent amendment sought to lower drug prices through foreign competition, but due to opposition from key Democrats, it will not become law.

Proposal Profile

The proposal in question began as an amendment to the budget reconciliation bill that Republicans in Congress are using to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Introduced by senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Bernie Sanders (D-VT), it seeks to let US citizens purchase prescription medicines from Canada. Because the Canadian government negotiates directly with drug companies, pharmaceuticals are significantly less expensive in Canada. Thus in theory, this measure would dramatically lower drug prices in the United States, though additional legislation would likely be necessary in practice before Canadian pharmaceuticals truly become available in this country.

With support from many Republicans and most Democrats, this measure had a strong chance of becoming law, but failed when 13 Democratic senators broke ranks and voted against it. Dissenting Democrats include Patty Murray (D-WA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Maria Cantrell (D-WA). Their votes have sparked a backlash, with accusations that they are insufficiently progressive to represent the Democratic Party.

Facts Of Failure

Cantwell, Booker, and the others have defended their “no” votes, expressing concern about the safety of imported drugs. Spokespeople for the pharmaceutical industry have supported this claim, alleging that low-quality drugs from India, Costa Rica, and other countries could enter the United States through Canada. Others have countered that safety standards are high in Canada and that a large portion of Canadian drugs are manufactured in the United States. Pharmaceutical companies, they argue, oppose this measure to protect their profits, not to defend public safety.

Some have speculated that Booker and other Democratic dissenters voted against the amendment because they received substantial donations from the pharmaceutical industry. This explanation seems unlikely, however, given that senators John McCain (R-AZ), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Charles Grassley (R-IA) all received more money from drug companies, yet they voted for the measure.

Another explanation is that the Democrats who voted against the amendment are from states that manufacture pharmaceuticals on a large scale. Exposing these manufacturers to foreign competition would cost jobs, creating a negative backlash against the senators. If this is the case, it indicates a significant conflict between state and national interests in US politics.

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