California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has urged Congressional leaders to pass legislation allowing US consumers to safely import prescription drugs, as a priority.

Despite January 1’s introduction of the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, the problems facing over 45 million uninsured Americans with limited access to prescription drugs remain unaddressed, he has written to Senate and House leaders. “Conversely, residents of Canada, the European Union and millions of others around the world pay less for their prescription drugs because their governments impose price controls that effectively shift the financial burden of R&D to the USA,” he says.

Gov Schwarzenegger writes that, while he has always stressed that he would not sign a bill that encourages foreign importation in violation of federal law, drug prices have continued to escalate and there is no evidence that the US government has been able to bring more equity to the global marketplace. Therefore, “Congress must act to allow Americans to import safe prescription drugs.” However, he adds that he is “adamantly” opposed to price controls, because “they will have a chilling effect on the R&D of life-saving medicines and harm California’s critical biotech industry.”

This solution is not as simple as it seems, say industry spokesmen, pointing to a recent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “sting” which found that nearly half of imported drugs intercepted from India, Israel, Costa Rica and Vanuatu were shipped to fill orders from consumers who believed they were placing with “Canadian” pharmacies. In fact, 85% of the drugs came from 27 countries, and a number were counterfeit.

Innovation is the key to the biomedical community’s success but importation puts this research at risk, says BIOCOM, an industry group representing the Greater San Diego and Southern California life sciences community.

On November 8, 2005, voters in a California Special Election rejected Proposition 78, an initiative backed by Gov Schwarzenegger to provide drug discounts for low-income, Medicare-ineligible state residents through rebates negotiated with manufacturers.

A “duelling” initiative, Proposition 79, which sought to make these rebates mandatory and ban manufacturers which declined them from supplying the $4 billion Med-Cal program, was also voted down. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America reportedly spent a record-breaking $80 million on efforts to promote Prop 78 and defeat Prop 79.