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Bernice Moore
10-01-2009, 05:56 AM
Canada a parasite for keeping drug prices low, says U.S. senator


By Lee-Anne Goodman, The Canadian Press


WASHINGTON - An American legislator called Canada "parasitic" on Wednesday for siphoning U.S. dollars to Canada with low prescription drug prices while his country does "all the innovation."

Canada benefits financially from America's role as a world leader in medical advances, Republican Sen. Bob Corker charged in an exchange with a Liberal MP as she testified before a U.S. Senate committee.

"One of the things that has troubled me greatly about our system is the fact that we pay more for pharmaceuticals and devices than other countries, and yet it's not really our country so much that's the problem, it's the parasitic relationship that Canada and France and other countries have towards us," the Tennessee lawmaker told Carolyn Bennett.

"Meaning that you set prices and unfortunately all the innovation, all the technological breakthroughs, just about, take place in our country ... you benefit from us and we pay for that and I resent that."

Bennett, a family doctor and one-time minister of state for public health, was one of five people testifying before the Senate special committee on aging. The panel, chaired by Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl and including newly minted Sen. Al Franken, was examining how successful health-care systems keep their costs low while maintaining quality care.

She seemed puzzled by Corker's remarks, reminding him that drug pricing was a global concern, not part of a plot by Canada.

"It's the drug companies, sir, and they're multinational - it's nothing about the United States of America," she told him.

Their debate was a timely one: Another U.S. senator - Democrat Byron Dorgan from North Dakota - is preparing to make a legislative push in the days to come that would legally allow Americans to buy cheaper Canadian drugs.

Dorgan will introduce an amendment to the health-care reform legislation currently before the Senate finance committee that would legalize so-called re-importation. Under current U.S. law, only pharmaceutical companies are allowed to import prescription drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration into the United States.

Drug companies import more than US $40 billion in drugs into the United States, while drug wholesalers and consumers are shut out of the global marketplace. Consequently, Dorgan has long maintained, Americans pay the highest prices for prescription drugs than anywhere else in the world.

News of the pending amendment, to be introduced when the health-care reform bill makes it to the Senate floor, has alarmed some Canadian observers who fear re-importation could lead to shortage of drugs in Canada.

Bennett herself raised that concern in her testimony on Wednesday.

"Please don't think that you can import cheap drugs from Canada ... it will last us about 36 days," she told Corker.

He replied: "That's a silly way of dealing with it."

"My goal over time is for us not to pay more than you because you set prices and cause us to pay more when we're doing all the innovation," Corker added.

"In essence, the Canadian government and its citizens are taking advantage of our citizens by virtue of setting prices that are lower than competitive prices."

Canada's history is, in fact, rich with medical breakthroughs, including the discovery of insulin, the first identification of stem cells and the invention of the first artificial kidney machine.
After her testimony wrapped up, Bennett politely described the exchange as "a nice to and fro."
"They were very much focused on the need to control costs; my job was to come and defend the Canadian system and explain how we get to pay less, live longer and have fewer babies dying in their first year."
Bennett isn't the only Canadian in the U.S. capital this week to participate in the health-care reform debate. Shona Holmes appears Friday at a Republican event on Capitol Hill.
Holmes, a 45-year-old mediator from Waterdown, Ont., has become a poster child for conservative opponents of health-care reform in the U.S. for her claims she would have died if she'd stayed in Canada for treatment of a brain tumour.
"If I had relied on my government for health care, I'd be dead," Holmes said in a television commercial for the anti-reform group Patients United Now.
In fact, Holmes didn't have a cancerous brain tumour, but a benign cyst that threatened her vision.
Nonetheless, she travelled to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, and spent US$97,000 for treatment rather than wait 36 days for insurance-paid care in Canada. She's now pushing for the Ontario Health Insurance Plan to reimburse her for the money she spent on surgery, tests and follow-up.
The organizers of the Capitol Hill event say she will be among several patients who will "share stories of overcoming life-threatening illnesses and explain their concerns about the president's plans for health-care reform." ...B..:beer: