A bid to allow US consumers to buy their drugs from Canada and elsewhere is set to return to the US Senate floor, even though it was ruled out by the PhRMA/Senate Finance Committee $80 billion cost-saving deal.

Democrat Byron Dorgan plans to offer his Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act (S 1232) as one of the first amendments to the Senate health reform legislation once it reaches the chamber’s floor for debate. His bill, which has bipartisan support from 30 co-sponsors, is endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) and the American Association for Retired People (AARP) and would, it is estimated, save $50 billion over the next 10 years, he says.

“This legislation would save money...by ultimately forcing drug companies to lower their prices in the United States,” says Sen Dorgan. Current US law permits only pharmaceutical companies to import Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved prescription drugs into the USA, and these imports total more than $40 billion a year. As a result of the ban on wholesalers and consumers buying drugs abroad, Americans pay the highest prices for prescription drugs anywhere in the world, he says.

President Barack Obama supported re-importation during his election campaign but, in its endorsement of the $80 billion cost-saving deal agreed between the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, the White House agreed not to include the strategy in its health reform legislation. Many legislators have attacked the deal with industry and warned that because they were not involved in the negotiations they are not bound by it. If Sen Dorgan’s bill does reach the Senate floor, it is widely expected to meet a favourable reception.

However, a leading Canadian politician urged US Senators last week not to pass any such legislation. “Please don’t think you can import cheap drugs from Canada,” as doing so would “last us about 36 days,” Liberal Member of Parliament Dr Carolyn Bennett told a hearing held by the Senate Special Committee on Aging to examine how other countries keep their health care costs under control.

Her comment drew a sharp response from Republican Senator Bob Corker, who said that re-importation was “a silly way” of dealing with pricing issues and added: “the Canadian government and its citizens are taking advantage of our citizens by virtue of setting prices that are lower than competitive prices.”

In the US, “we pay more for pharmaceuticals and devices than other countries, and yet it's not really our country so much that's the problem, it’s the parasitic relationship that Canada and France and other countries have towards us,” said Sen Corker. These nations set prices but “just about” all the innovation and breakthroughs take place in the USA, he told Dr Bennett, adding: “you benefit from us and we pay for that and I resent that.”

However, Dr Bennett, a former public health minister, responded: “It’s the drug companies, sir, and they're multinational - it's nothing about the United States of America.”

Speaking about the exchange on Canadian morning television the next day, Dr Bennett added: “as I pointed out to the Senator, the pharmaceutical industry is run by multinational corporations that have researchers and investors all over the world.”