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Will importing drugs save U.S. costs?

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Dec 16, 2009

Will importing drugs save U.S. costs?

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Dec 16, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: For a good three hours on the floor of the United States Senate today, this was the sound of the health-care debate:

Bernie Sanders: Section 1514, payments for prescription drugs. A, establishment of lists. One, in general, the boards shall establish…

Republicans used Senate rules to slow things down and force a page-by-page reading of a proposed amendment by Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders today. Sanders eventually gave up and pulled his 776-page amendment before it could be voted down.

Among the amendments that actually have been voted down is one that would have let Americans import lower-cost prescription drugs from other countries. Seeing as how part of the original premise for a health-care overhaul was to make things cheaper, we asked Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall Genzer what the decision is going to cost.

Nancy Marshall Genzer: The Congressional Budget Office estimates the U.S. government could save almost $20 billion on its drug costs over the next 10 years if it could import prescription drugs. Other estimates say consumers would save $80 billion if they could buy their drugs from countries, like Canada, where they’re much cheaper.

Larry McNeely is the health-care advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

LARRY MCNEELY: You could see some drugs going for literally a fraction — a tenth of what they’re charged here in the United States.

Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders says you can fill a Lipitor prescription in Canada for $33. In the U.S., the same prescription costs $125. But the Senate voted down an amendment to the health-care overhaul that would have allowed the U.S. to import drugs approved by the FDA. McNeely says that’s because of the lobbying muscle of the pharmaceutical industry.

MCNEELY: Pharma is powerful enough to deny the success of a number of major pieces of legislation.

The drug industry has been generally supportive of a health-care overhaul because it cut a deal with the Obama administration that it would give up no more than $80 billion in revenue over 10 years. Drug importation would have cost it billions more. White House critics say the industry got a sweetheart deal.

But University of Michigan economist Erik Gordon says President Obama needs the drug companies’ support to get any kind of an overhaul at all.

ERIK GORDON: I think what he’s trying to do is come up with something that’s workable.

Even if it doesn’t get you Lipitor for $33.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

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