Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2004 / 12 Teves, 5765

Froma Harrop

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Consumer Reports

Bizarre government report is distraction | Should the French government inspect American hospitals? Suppose the Department of Health and Human Services studied that question and, after months of hard work, issued a long report: It concluded that having Frenchmen check our hospitals is feasible, but fraught with problems. The French inspectors might not do a good job. American officials could supervise their work, but that would cost too much money. In the end, Americans are better off not having their hospitals inspected.

At some point, a sane person would burst in and say: "What on earth are you talking about? This is nuts! The United States is supposed to monitor its own hospitals. How can we even talk about having another country ensure the safety of American patients?" The person would be right.

Well, this fantasy is no less crazy than a real-life HHS study just released by the Task Force on Drug Importation. The report says that commercial imports of prescription drugs from Canada wouldn't save much money. And individual buyers could not be assured of the drugs' safety. The U.S. government could regulate these Canadian drug sales, it is true, but that would cost $3 billion a year. In summation, Americans should accept their lot in life: Paying up to twice as much for brand-name prescriptions as people in other countries is a civic duty.

Oooh, this absurd document has a weighty look to it. Its 129 pages are laden with footnotes. There are 32 charts and a long appendix. In studying the issue, the task force ran six "listening sessions" with various "stakeholders."

Why do this bizarre report at all? The real reason is simple. The pharmaceutical industry owns the Bush administration and a good chunk of the Republican-controlled Congress. Drug costs are lower in Canada because Ottawa negotiates prices on behalf of its citizens. The drug companies don't want Americans buying medicines from Canada because that means fewer profits for them.

Americans wildly favor the right to import drugs from Canada, so frustrating these desires must be done in an indirect way. Note that the Bush administration doesn't arrest grandmothers crossing the border with their bags of Fosamax. It could.

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During the recent election campaign, a poker-faced George Bush said he was open to the idea of drug imports and that an HHS study on the matter would be forthcoming. Of course, the fix was already in. He had carefully chosen task-force members who would reach the pre-ordained conclusions.

But forget about importing drugs from Canada. All this talk is a sideshow designed to distract attention from the real outrage: Washington's refusal to do something about the prices charged Americans in America. It's outlandish to even suppose that a country of 33 million should supply drugs for 293 million Americans.

Nearly every other industrialized nation negotiates drug prices. It's even done in the United States on a limited basis — by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

Americans had a golden opportunity to extend this practice to the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit. But the bill that passed forbids any haggling on price. As a result, a fabulously expensive entitlement will cost taxpayers tons more money than it had to.

This shameful piece of legislation was the handiwork of Billy Tauzin, Republican of Louisiana. Tauzin is leaving Congress for a $2-million-a-year job heading the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry trade group. Given what Tauzin has done for drug makers, he would have been cheap at twice the price.

Tommy Thompson, meanwhile, is on his way out as secretary of health and human services. As a parting shot, Thompson said that the Medicare drug bill should have let the government negotiate prices on behalf of the beneficiaries. How nice of him to speak up, now that it no longer matters.

And so we enter the New Year with zero progress on lowering domestic drug costs. Someday the peasants may see the ruse and start looking to Washington, not Ottawa, for solutions. But they have to get their bearings first. Remember, they've just been dragged through the Fun House with a ludicrous report on The Wisdom of Buying Zocor in Canada. Small wonder no one knows anymore what end is up.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.