Sunday, August 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

Keeping our border safe from affordable medication

President Bush has finally found a cross-border commerce he cannot tolerate. He will not, I repeat not, allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada. That would give his subjects the option of obtaining their Zocor for less than the extortionate prices drug makers charge here. This all falls under the administration's guiding principle: No policy may ever favor ordinary citizens over corporations.

Since Nov. 17, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been quietly seizing drugs mailed from Canadian pharmacies to people in this country. It's keeping these confiscations — about 40,000 packages so far — hush-hush because, as the administration knows full well, they are outrageous. The government doesn't notify the addressees that it has grabbed their blood-pressure medicine, so the customers become aware of the interception only when their drugs don't arrive. No doubt some people's health has suffered, as the drugs they need and think they've ordered do not materialize.

In case you haven't noticed, a large wall is being built around the American people to ensure that they remain prisoner to the drug industry. It's easy to understand why drug makers want to force Americans to buy their products in the United States. Ours is the only industrialized country that doesn't negotiate the prices the drug companies may charge. As a result, a 90-day supply of Fosamax sells for $105 in Canada but $210 here.

It's less easy to understand why our leaders in Washington have sided with the drug makers and against the American people — less easy but not impossible. They're well paid by the drug industry, which employs more than one lobbyist for every member of Congress.

Before there was a Medicare drug benefit, Washington didn't dare mess with elderly Americans seeking affordable drugs from Canada. And since the start of the program this year, the Canadian drug mail-order business has dipped somewhat. Of course, the Medicare drug-benefit law forbids the U.S. government to bargain on behalf of the beneficiaries. (That keeps taxpayers, who subsidize the program, on the hook for the higher prices.)

Some older people didn't want to join a Medicare drug plan or prefer the simplicity and savings of buying their drugs from Canada. And many younger Americans who lack drug coverage use Canadian pharmacies to avoid domestic price-gouging.

U.S. Customs says that it is stopping the imports from Canada to protect Americans from the harms of counterfeit drugs. Oh, sure. Actually, drugs ordered from licensed pharmacies in Canada are monitored by Health Canada, a government agency that is probably less corruptible than our own Food and Drug Administration. If our elected officials in Washington truly cared about the well-being of the American people, they would have long ago done something about unfairly high drug prices. That way, more people would have been able to afford the drugs they should take, and poor people wouldn't have to cut their pills in half to extend their prescriptions.

(One state, Nevada, has thumbed its nose at Washington and has licensed four Canadian pharmacies to sell drugs to its residents. Several other states may follow its lead.)

Members of Congress have heard an earful from people enraged by the federal seizure of their medications. Both the Senate and the House have approved amendments to the Homeland Security appropriations bill that would bar Customs from using federal money to confiscate drugs.

Do not assume, however, that this obnoxious policy will soon stop. The bills will go into conference committee, and if history is any guide, drug-industry lobbyists will cement shut the Canadian door to lower drug prices. So much for free trade, or even freedom.

And what about you red-blooded Americans out there? Are you going to sit passively as the back-room boys try to preserve the ludicrous ban on buying Lipitor from Canada? Americans, you really don't have to put up with this.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

2006, The Providence Journal Co.


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