January 24, 2017

Take all the facts in on drug importation

Erin DeMay

Flickr / cc

Martin Heinrich is being criticized on the internet for his recent vote on prescription drug importation. The attacks have plenty of passion but not enough facts.

I know something about PhRMA, drug pricing, and misguided accusations. For over 20 years I was the Chief of Staff and Committee Staff Director for Congressman Henry Waxman, who was the leading progressive House Democrat on health and environmental issues. During that time we did a series of ground-breaking investigative reports showing that big drug companies were charging Americans inexcusably higher prices than they were charging in other countries. In fact, we did over 100 of these reports and the pharmaceutical industry responded by attacking our credibility and our facts. But we were right and we kept fighting to bring fairness to American consumers. Moreover, Congressman Waxman sponsored a series of bills that became law that injected at least some competition into the drug industry and forced companies to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in rebates to the Medicaid program. Those are just some of the reasons President Obama said “No one has done more to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable than Henry Waxman” and the consumer group Public Citizen (founded by Ralph Nader) gave him an award for “remarkable leadership over three decades fighting…for safe and affordable prescription drugs.”

Phil Schiliro was the Director of Legislative Affairs for President Obama and is a co-founder of and senior advisor to Grow New Mexico, a non-profit focused on bringing essential services to New Mexican communities.

Notwithstanding that record, a few years back an opponent attacked Congressman Waxman on the basis that he had accepted donations from pharmaceutical companies and opposed an amendment that would have allowed the importation of drugs from other countries. Both parts of the attack were true on their own. He had accepted political contributions—that’s the system our country has—and he had opposed the amendment. But as one of the industry’s most vocal critics it was ridiculous to suggest there was a link between the two.

Congressman Waxman opposed the importation amendment because of genuine concerns about the safety of imported pharmaceuticals and the integrity of the approval and distribution system. Instead of dealing with the overpricing issue by potentially creating a dangerous public health problem, we believed a better approach would be to force the companies to charge the same price here that they they did in other countries. And we also fought to have the federal government be able to negotiate lower prices with the drug companies. Both of those approaches would lower prices without jeopardizing safety.

History is repeating itself with the unfounded attacks on Senator Heinrich. He strongly supports reforms that would free the federal government to use its large Medicare and Medicaid purchasing power to demand lower drug prices from manufacturers without eliminating key FDA safeguards. If importation legislation were introduced that effectively dealt with the real safety concerns, I expect he would support that. We all have a right to our own policy views, but that doesn’t mean we have to automatically question each other’s motives in reaching our conclusions. And it’s worth remembering that in addition to his support for pharmaceutical reforms, Senator Heinrich is also fighting as hard as he can for New Mexico on climate change, public lands, immigration, LGBT rights, and on preserving the progress we’ve made on health care.

So my modest suggestion is we all take a deep breath and consider all the facts before attacking each other.