U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are facing questions and criticism about their votes against a proposal aimed at making it easier to import inexpensive prescription drugs from Canada.
The Washington Democrats joined 11 other party colleagues Wednesday in opposing an amendment sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. The amendment to the budget reconciliation bill to allow pharmacies, wholesalers and individuals to import medicines failed with just 46 votes. But it won enough Republican support to pass had a handful of the recalcitrant Democrats voted differently.
Murray and Cantwell defended their stance, saying they were concerned about safety and quality of imported drugs and maintaining U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards for prescription drugs.
“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,” Murray said in a statement.
Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group and longtime critic of the pharmaceutical industry, has a mixed view of importation. The group, founded by Ralph Nader, has expressed concerns about quality and maintaining FDA standards. But it also is wary of industry influence opposing proposals to provide lower-cost drugs.
“Quality is not an illegitimate argument,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Program. “However, our experience counsels that it sometimes is a fig leaf for protecting pharma profits, and that issue shouldn’t be ignored as well.”
Maybarduk said he couldn’t speak to each senator’s motives. But he said he could understand why Washingtonians would be upset with both senators voting against it.
Many pointed comments and questions have been posted on Murray’s Facebook page.
Groups supporting the amendment included Families USA, Alliance for Retired Americans and RxRights, according to a Sanders spokesman.
In a statement, Cantwell said she supports importation but has “deep concerns” about safety and counterfeit drugs that don’t meet FDA standards. “Unfortunately, the Sanders amendment did not have specific measures to protect public safety,” she said.
Constituent concerns may have been whipped up by digital publications that framed the vote as 13 Democrats, including potential presidential candidate Cory Booker of New Jersey, coddling the industry, which has opposed importation for similar reasons.
In her Senate career, Murray has received $515,089 in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical manufacturers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. Cantwell has received $74,750.
A contrasting view in Washington Monthly described the vote as symbolic. The amendment would have given discretion to the Republican Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, to revise allocations related to lowering drug prices, including through importation. Enzi himself voted against the amendment. Washington Monthly called outrage about the vote “fake news.”
Sanders, in a statement, said he was disappointed in the 13 Democratic senators who voted no.
“The Democratic Party has got to stand up to the greed of the pharmaceutical industry,” Sanders said. “It is not acceptable that the five biggest drug companies made $50 billion in profits in 2015 while nearly 1 in 5 Americans cannot afford the medicine that their doctor prescribes.”
During Senate debate, Sanders pointed to price differences in the U.S. and Canada. The allergy treatment EpiPen costs $620 in the U.S., he said, compared with $290 in Canada. Abilify, an anti-depression medication, costs $2,626 for a 90-day supply in the U.S. but only $436 in Canada, Sanders said.