Politics & Policy

Trojan Horse

The case against drug importation.

In Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan Horse was a hollow wooden horse in which several Greek soldiers hid to gain entrance to the city of Troy. The Trojans wheeled the horse into their city thinking it was a gift, not knowing the enemy lurked inside. At night the Greeks exited the horse, opened the city gates for the rest of their army, and conquered Troy.

Today, a Trojan Horse can be anything that poses as something good, but when let in, it does harm. One such Trojan Horse is moving its way quietly through Congress. On the outside, it looks like a cure-all for skyrocketing prescription-drug prices. On the inside, it carries hidden invaders that threaten the survival of our health-care system.

Selene Seguros Rios fell victim to this Trojan Horse. She was 18 months old in 1999 when she received two injections of a pain and fever drug called Neo-Melubrina (dipyrone) in an illegal backroom clinic in Tustin, California. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had banned the drug in 1979 because of potentially fatal side effects. Selene died soon after receiving the shots of smuggled drugs from Mexico.

Selene’s parents were fooled by the perception that imported prescription drugs would help their daughter. Her story is not unique. There are many stories of people who have died or been injured by imported drugs. There are even some who thought they were receiving imported medication but found only vitamins or some other useless substance inside.

H.R. 2427, the Pharmaceutical Market Access Act of 2003 would make it easier to import drugs from Mexico and elsewhere by legalizing prescription-drug importation. Supporters say we should open our borders to the importing of foreign drugs so our economy can benefit from the lower drug prices found in Europe and beyond.

Supporters of the idea promise that it will bring “world market prices” to the United States, lowering drug prices for millions of Americans. I agree that drugs are too expensive, but this is not the solution.

In nearly every foreign country, the government, not the free market, dictates the prices consumers pay for prescription medication. Government price-controls of drugs are not the free market at work; it is socialism at work.

Importing these drugs opens the door and invites the spurious benefits of socialism into our free market health-care system. Once inside, this hidden bug will work not to help but to destroy everything that makes our health care system the best in the world.

But why are price controls so bad, you ask?

The answer is found in Europe. The regulatory headlock placed on pharmaceutical companies on that continent — including price controls — kills any efforts to create and sustain the processes necessary to find breakthroughs in prescription medications. Many companies have relocated. Those that remain rely on free-market research and innovation from the United States, according to a report by the Directorate General Enterprise of the European Commission.

This free market has acted as the catalyst for a wave of advances in the biotech industry over the last ten years in America. The product of those advances? Hundreds of life-saving drugs. Without the free market, these drugs would not exist. Introducing price controls dictated by foreign governments to our market would stifle further advances, slow job creation in the biotech industry, and hinder economic growth.

The solution would be to introduce free-market reforms in other countries so that companies there could share the burden of developing new life-saving medications.

Concerns about price controls and socialism, however, should take a back seat to the serious health risks posed by importation. No foreign or domestic public-health official can guarantee the safety of imported foreign medicines. That is why H.R. 1, the Medicare bill recently passed by the House, included language legalizing the importation of medicines from Canada, only if the secretary of Health and Human Services demonstrates that the legislation would “pose no additional” risk to the health and safety of Americans. H.R. 2427 irresponsibly removes that safeguard.

Secretary Thompson understands the real risks posed by this Trojan Horse. On February 14, 2002, he was asked by the Senate Budget Committee about opening U.S. borders for the importation of prescription drugs. He responded by saying that “the law requires us to certify that we know that these drugs are safe. It’s impossible for us to certify that these drugs are safe.”

Supporters claim that stories like Selene’s are anomalies and that price controls are not as insidious as they seem. They point to Canada as a potential source of safe, cheap drugs. That is hardly encouraging. Canada is regularly cited as an easy entry point into the American market for anything from narcotics to counterfeit prescription drugs. And the inefficiencies of its health system are deeply troubling.

The bottom line is the safety of the American people is the paramount responsibility of the federal government. That is the lesson of the last two years.

Allowing drugs that have not undergone our rigorous safety standards pose a clear risk to public health. Without these assurances of safety, the numbers on a price tag may go down in the short-term, but the true cost of these drugs will be tallied in injuries and in human life.

Socialism has failed miserably as a means to get medicine to the people who need them. To allow that failure to infect our free-market health-care system would spell doom for further advances in medicine. Common sense dictates that we stick to what works and what, in the long run, saves lives.

We should let common sense prevail. Congress should close the door to this Trojan Horse, and reject H.R. 2427.

— Rep. Joseph R. Pitts represents the Sixteenth Congressional District of Pennsylvania. He is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health.


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