Did you see that video of Bernie Sanders chastising Democratic Senators for setting up camp in the pockets of Big Pharma? I love it. He's at his most irascible when Democrats are at their most unreasonable, and it seems like he's got every reason to fume.
Early Thursday morning, 13 Democrats voted against a proposal he co-sponsored with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (who you may remember for giving Jeff Sessions the business during his confirmation hearing) that would allow U.S. citizens to legally buy drugs from Canada, where they are sometimes 50 percent cheaper. Cory Booker (who you also may remember for giving Jeff Sessions the business) was among the naysaying Senators, as were our very own Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. Meanwhile, 13 Republicans reached across the aisle in support of it.
Sanders and Lobuchar introduced the proposal during "vote-a-rama," a special all-night session Democrats organized to force Republicans to vote on a bunch of non-binding proposal changes to reveal which parts of the ACA they might keep. So, the votes were symbolic. But still! Republicans have already begun the process of stripping away healthcare from millions of Americans by vowing to repeal and "replace" the ACA within the first 100 days of their reign. In this context, do Washington's Senators really want to send a message to their constituencies, 537,000 of whom rely on the ACA, that they don't want to find ways to bring cheap drugs into the country? To use an increasingly popular phrase: "now, more than ever," people need cheap Prozac. Do they want us all to go crazy AND broke?
"Senator Cantwell supports prescription drug importation, but has deep concerns around patient safety and counterfeit drugs that do not meet FDA standards being imported into the country and putting patient lives in danger," says spokesperson Bryan Watt. "Unfortunately," Watt concluded, "the Sanders amendment did not have specific measures to protect public safety."
Watt supports Cantwell's claim by pointing out her vote for Senator Ron Wyden's (D-Oregon) proposal, which he says would lower drug prices, but which actually only brings public attention to bills that wouldn't lower drug prices. Wyden's proposal was rejected, and, anyway, he voted for the Sanders-Lobuchar proposal.
Senator Murray walks the same line. “I strongly support allowing patients to re-import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, and I am committed to working with Senator Sanders and others to get this done in a way that maintains the safety assurances families depend on," she says, though she voted against the proposal.
Since Murray's spokesperson wouldn't tell me whether the Senator had heard of Canadians dying en masse from taking prescription drugs reviewed by the Health Products and Food Branch of Health Canada, or whether she maintained any reservations about economic impacts of such legislation, or whether she was aware that Americans ALREADY buy tons of prescription drugs from countries like Canada and France on the internet, I had to put down my joint and try to substantiate her noble concerns for the safety of American families.
The Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM), which is run by a bunch of former FDA administrators, wrote a letter to congress outlining their concerns about importing drugs.
In general, PSM distrusts imported drugs that don't pass through the FDA. Foreign drugs and regulators are suspicious. The FDA is the gold standard, and anything else is considered counterfeit. Never mind that, according to Consumer Reports, "about 40 percent of the medications Americans use everyday are made outside the U.S," and that "80 percent of all raw drug ingredients used to make medications we take in the U.S. come from other countries." Our drugs are already imported. "Foreignness" is the norm.
In the letter, the biggest counterfeit drug case PSM mentions involves a "$78 million dollar ring of cancer drug smugglers who sold illegally imported medication, including several counterfeit versions of the chemotherapy drug Avastin." But PSM notes that the United Kingdom Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency informed the FDA of these counterfeit drugs. How the FDA trusts foreign regulatory agencies to catch counterfeiters but not regulate their own drugs is a head-scratcher.
As The Intercept argues (and as Senator Sanders bellows), Murray's and Cantwell's safety concerns align with the rhetoric of big pharmaceutical companies and pro-phrama organizations such as PSM.
According to Open Secrets, Murray received $333,444 in donations from pharmaceutical companies this year, the second-highest recipient in the Senate. In 2014, a year she wasn't running for re-election, she still made the Top 20 list with $123,050.
Between 2011 and 2016, Cantwell has received $59,750 from pharmaceutical companies.
Murray didn't reply when asked to respond to critics who say her vote was influenced by contributions she received from the pharmaceutical industry.
Watt, however, did provide an answer to the same question on Senator Cantwell's behalf.
"Senator Cantwell has taken votes, written legislation, and cosponsored bills that are opposed by the pharmaceutical industry, including allowing the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries," he says. "Senator Cantwell has long fought to make the health care delivery system focus on keeping patients healthy, a strategy that will ultimately lower health costs, including the cost of prescription drugs."
You heard him! Prevention is the best medicine. That's true, but a bit of a dodge. Good luck keeping your head on for the next four years, Washington.