Sen. Al Franken was a backer of the effort to let Americans pay less for their medicine.
WASHINGTON - An attempt by Sens. John McCain and Al Franken to let Americans buy cheap Canadian drugs failed to make it out of committee Wednesday on a close vote.
The push reprised fruitless tries by some members of Congress to give people in the United States more affordable alternatives to prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Critics have raised questions about counterfeit or unsafe drugs.
The debate, which dates back at least a decade, drew strong talk from McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Franken, a Minnesota Democrat.
"I've heard from seniors who have to choose between their food or their prescriptions or for heat during the winter and from those who ration their pills and will cut a pill in half or not take a pill at all," Franken told colleagues on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. "And guess what? They get readmitted to the hospital very often."
Franken co-sponsored McCain's amendment to the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act that would have allowed Americans to purchase drugs online from Canadian pharmacies approved by the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
"This is about bringing down the cost of our medical care system," Franken said.
His appeal came after McCain held up a bottle of an over-the-counter heartburn medicine. It costs $5.71 in the United States, the former Republican presidential candidate said. In Canada, it costs $1.34.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has led pharmaceutical shopping trips to Canada, told of a constituent buying a breast cancer drug in Canada for one-tenth the U.S. cost.
McCain narrowed his amendment to apply only to Canada. An earlier proposal would have allowed Americans to buy drugs from approved pharmacies in Europe as well.
"In many cases these are drugs made in the United States, sent to Canada, and then we buy them back," Franken said.
Drugs purchased under the terms of the amendment would have had to be for personal use. People "couldn't fill someone else's prescription or sell the medication," Franken explained. He called the amendment a "common sense provision."
The bipartisan vote to defeat the Canadian drug purchase amendment was 12-9.
"I don't know when we'll pass legislation like this," Franken said in a statement after the committee meeting. "But I think the tipping point will occur when members of Congress are inundated by demands to bring down the cost of medications."
Opponent Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., voiced concern about the "safety and validity of the supply chain."
A March 2012 study of 370 online drug purchases by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that "no failure of authenticity is found in drugs that came from verified websites," including those in Canada.
Mikulski said, "When an American citizen goes into Canada and buys something, they know who they bought it from. But when you go online, you don't really know who you're buying from."
McCain fired back: "To somehow assume that Canada has ... less oversight of the pharmaceuticals that are sold in Canada ... is a little insulting to our Canadian friends."
People from Minnesota are able to go to Canada to purchase medication, McCain added. "Frankly, it's a longer ride from Arizona."
Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752