WASHINGTON – The Senate probably will not vote before this year's election on a bill with broad bipartisan support to legalize cheaper prescription drug imports from Canada, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) said Wednesday.
Some Democrats responded that they would try to force such a vote.
Frist, R-Tenn., an opponent of permitting medicines to be imported, said there is too much else to do in the few weeks left before lawmakers head home to campaign full time. "It looks doubtful, just given we have 23 days," he told reporters.can people by taking legislation that hasn't been carefully considered by this body," Frist said.
Supporters of legalized imports said they would try to find a way to force a vote. "This has been debated over and over and over again. With the broad bipartisan consensus, we must act. And we intend to see the Senate take a position and have a vote," said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader.
Several bills pending in the Senate would permit imports from Canada, where brand-name medicines cost a third or more less. Legislation passed the House last year.
A Bush administration task force also is preparing a report on drug imports, but a spokesman said he is uncertain when it will be completed.
An AP poll this year found that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said the government should make it easier to buy cheaper drugs from Canada or other countries.
A growing number of cities and states are helping employees and retirees buy drugs from Canada. The Montgomery County, Md., council, in suburban Washington, is expected to adopt a similar program next week, over the objections of the Food and Drug Administration (search) and pharmacists' organizations.
Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry supports drug imports and many Democratic candidates have made the topic a part of their appeal on health care.
They have attacked last year's Medicare prescription drug benefit law as flawed. They contend it does little to control health care costs but rewards drug makers and insurers.
Daschle said he heard again and again about the cost of drugs in his travels across South Dakota during Congress' August recess.
"There are two things that have to be done: Pass the reimportation bill...and allow government to negotiate lower prices, as we already do for veterans and the military," he said.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Frist made a commitment in March to allow a vote this year, in exchange for Dorgan agreeing not to block the confirmation of Dr. Mark McClellan as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (search).
Dorgan said he was disappointed by Frist's comment Wednesday. "I think he ought to keep that commitment," Dorgan said.