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House votes to let people import cheap prescriptions

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Amid growing public resentment of high prescription drug prices, the House voted overwhelmingly Monday to prevent the government from discouraging the purchase of drugs in Canada or other countries.

An increasing number of Americans have been going to Canada, Mexico and other countries to purchase prescription drugs for cheaper than what they cost in the United States.

Technically, it's illegal to import prescription drugs that were originally made in the United States, and the Food and Drug Administration sometimes sends warning letters to people caught doing it. The agency gives its employees discretion to permit imports of drugs that violate its restrictions, so long as they are intended for personal use.

The House approved, 363-12, an amendment to an FDA appropriations bill that would prevent the agency from enforcing the importation ban, so long as the drugs are for personal use. A second amendment, approved 370-12, would bar the agency from sending the warning letters.

"People's lives are being shortened today because of the abnormally high and ridiculously increased price of prescriptions," said Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Because of cost controls, drugs can cost several times less in Canada, Mexico and Europe than in the United States, leading some Americans to buy their pharmaceuticals by mail order or else join bus trips across the border to fill their prescriptions.

For example, Prilosec, a popular ulcer medication, costs $400 for 100 capsules in New York but $184 in Canada and $107 in Mexico, said Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y.

"Prescription drugs and medicines are not a luxury, they are a necessity," added Crowley.

Separately Monday, the House defeated an amendment, 187-182, that would have barred the FDA from testing, developing or approving abortion-inducing pills like the drug RU-486. The House had approved a similar measure in 1998 and 1999, but the Senate had refused each time to go along with the restriction. Sixty-six members missed Monday's House vote.

The agency said in February that it would approve sale of RU-486, also known as mifepristone, once some final, but undisclosed, requirements were met.

High drug prices have emerged as a significant issue in this year's political campaigns. Polling indicates the issue of prescription drugs is a priority for Americans 65 and older, a group that accounted for more than one-quarter of voters in the 1998 elections and is regarded as a key swing group in the fall campaign.

Republicans pushed a bill through the House last month that would use private insurance and federal subsidies to cover some of the cost of prescription drugs for senior citizens.

President Clinton has threatened to veto the legislation. He and congressional Democrats are advocating a more encompassing but also costlier alternative: a uniform, government-run prescription drug benefit, offered to all 39 million elderly and disabled Medicare beneficiaries.

FDA spokesman Lawrence Bachorik said the agency is concerned that the House legislation could undermine its "ability to protect consumers and patients from substandard, poorly manufactured or otherwise risky drugs."

"The FDA stands ready to work with Congress on these issues," he added.

The bill is H.R.4461.

On the Net: Food and Drug Administration: www.fda.gov