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7/19/2001

House Votes to Let Patients Import Drugs

Kate Traynor

Congress last week rejected a proposal that would have allowed wholesalers and pharmacies to reimport and resell prescription drugs obtained from abroad, but voted the same day to allow private citizens to obtain some foreign drugs.

The vote came a day after Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced that he will not implement the Medicine Equity and Drug Safety Act of 2000, which legalized drug reimportation by wholesalers and pharmacies. Thompson, in a letter to Sen. James M. Jeffords, Ind-Vt., cited the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) belief that the act would allow into the country "counterfeit drugs, cheap foreign copies of FDA-approved drugs, expired drugs, contaminated drugs, and drugs stored under inappropriate and unsafe conditions."

Thompson’s view echoed that of his predecessor, Donna E. Shalala, who concluded that the act threatened public safety and was of questionable economic benefit.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., crafted the personal-use importation provision as an amendment to next fiscal year’s Agriculture Department budget. The amendment passed 324 to 101. The broader reimportation amendment to FDA’s 2002 fiscal year budget, sponsored by Bernard Sanders, Ind-Vt., was rejected, 267–159.

A statement from Gutknecht said his amendment would allow Americans to import from abroad "personal use quantities of FDA-approved drugs, made in FDA-approved facilities and satisfying FDA importation rules." According to the Congressional Record, the amendment allows importation of a drug that "appears to be FDA approved and manufactured pursuant to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act." The amendment does not allow private citizens to import narcotics or other controlled substances.

Gutknecht, the day before the vote, said that Thompson’s refusal to endorse last year’s Medicine Equity and Drug Safety Act does not apply to the personal-use amendment.