Bernie Sanders introduced a very simple symbolic amendment Wednesday night, urging the federal government to allow Americans to purchase pharmaceutical drugs from Canada, where they are considerably cheaper. Such unrestricted drug importation is currently prohibited by law.
The policy has widespread support among Americans: one Kaiser poll taken in 2015 found that 72 percent of Americans are in favor of allowing for importation. President-elect Donald Trump also campaigned on a promise to allow for importation.
The Senate voted down the amendment 52-46, with two senators not voting. Unusually, the vote was not purely along party lines: 13 Republicans joined Sanders and a majority of Democrats in supporting the amendment, while 13 Democrats and a majority of Republicans opposed it.
One of those Democrats was New Jersey’s Cory Booker, who is considered a rising star in the party and a possible 2020 presidential contender.
In a statement to the media after the vote, Booker’s office said he supports the importation of prescription drugs but that “any plan to allow the importation of prescription medications should also include consumer protections that ensure foreign drugs meet American safety standards. I opposed an amendment put forward last night that didn’t meet this test.”
This argument is the same one offered by the pharmaceutical industry. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which lobbies against importation, maintains that it opposes importation because “foreign governments will not ensure that prescription drugs entering the U.S. from abroad are safe and effective.”
The safety excuse has long been a refuge for policymakers who don’t want to assist Americans struggling with prescription drug costs. Bills to legalize importation passed in 2000 and 2007, but expired after the Clinton and Bush administrations refused to certify that it would be safe. The Obama administration also cited safety concerns when opposing an importation measure in the Affordable Care Act.
A second amendment Wednesday, authored by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, would have allowed importation pending a safety certification, just like the previous laws passed on the subject. It also failed. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., used that amendment to claim on Twitter that he voted “to lower drug prices through importation from Canada,” and Booker referred to the Wyden amendment in his statement as well. This is a well-worn tactic from opponents of importation to mislead their constituents, as they know such certification will never occur.
The safety excuse is mostly a chimera, as most of the drugs that would be imported from Canada were originally manufactured in the United States; they’re just cheaper there, because the Canadian government uses a review board and price negotiation to make drugs more affordable.
“My first response to that is show me the dead Canadians. Where are the dead Canadians?” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, once asked during his own push to allow for importation.
Democrats blocked importation from becoming part of the Affordable Care Act in 2009, with over 30 votes in opposition, because they feared it would have pushed the pharmaceutical industry to oppose the underlying legislation. They also voted in large numbers to oppose importation as part of an FDA bill in 2012.
Booker and some of his Democratic colleagues who opposed the Sanders amendment are longtime friends of the drug industry. As MapLight data shows, Booker has received more pharmaceutical manufacturing cash over the past six years than any other Democratic senator: $267,338. In addition, significant numbers of pharmaceutical and biotech firms reside in Booker’s home state of New Jersey. Other Democrats receiving six-figure donations from the industry, like Casey, Patty Murray, and Michael Bennet, opposed the amendment.