US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged that the Senate will, before year-end, look at plans to allow Americans to re-import US-approved prescription drugs, whether or not they come up in the health care reform debate.

Senator Reid guaranteed this action in a letter sent yesterday to three leading sponsors of proposed legislation which would lift the current ban on re-imports of Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved prescription drugs. The bill, sponsored by Republicans John McCain and Olympia Snowe and Democrat Byron Dorgan, would permit pharmacies and wholesalers licensed in the USA to import such medicines from the European Union (EU), Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

In June, Sen Reid had assured the bill’s sponsors that the Senate would vote on their bill before taking up the massive health reform legislation, after they threatened to delay work on moves to authorise the FDA to regulate the tobacco industry unless they got their vote. However, in his letter yesterday he says that there now is not sufficient time for this to take place.

“The Senate has experienced an extremely full legislative agenda that has not permitted me to turn to this important legislation as quickly as I would have liked,” he writes. Instead, he pledges that he will work to ensure that a vote on lifting the ban is included as an amendment to the Senate’s comprehensive health reform legislation, and that if this is not possible, it will be put before Senators as a stand-alone bill before the end of the year.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which has always strongly opposed allowing drug re-imports, has welcomed the delay on the vote. “We should not pursue policies that could expose Americans to substandard drug products and potentially weaken the FDA by crippling the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission in protecting public health and safety,” says PhRMA.

- The bill to allow re-imports – the Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act – was introduced by the three Senators and others in March this year. They point out that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that passage would save US consumers $50 billion over the next decade, including more than $10 billion in federal government savings, and add that would not only “bring consumers immediate relief” but would “ultimately force the pharmaceutical industry to lower drug prices in the United States.”

In the last session of Congress, Sens Dorgan and Snowe had introduced a similar bill which had over 30 Senate co-sponsors, including President Barack Obama.