A bid to give Americans the ability to buy cheaper drugs from Canada failed yet again in the Senate on Thursday.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee advanced legislation Thursday that would reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration's user fee program. But it will move to the Senate floor without an amendment that would set up a system to enable Americans to buy cheaper drugs from Canada, with the committee voting 13-10 to table the measure.
Democrats were unable to convince their Republican colleagues to put aside long-standing concerns about the safety of the drugs Americans would buy.
"There is nobody here who would allow unsafe medicines to come into this country," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who sponsored the amendment.
Sanders said safety wasn't the biggest concern among Republicans.
"What this debate is about is the power of the pharma industry, which next to Wall Street is the most powerful entity in the United States," Sanders said. "Pharma has endless supplies of money in order to get their way in the Congress."
But safety concerns were a prime reason Republicans gave for voting down the amendment.
"Simply put, this would put Americans at risk of counterfeit and substandard drugs," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "I don't think there is anybody who can really deny that."
Democrats countered that the amendment, which models a bill sponsored earlier by Sanders and several other Democrats, fixes safety problems.
It requires that any seller of cheaper Canadian drugs register with the FDA and that the sites be inspected by the agency.
"The safety problem is the distraction. We can fix that," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he knows of family members who already are buying cheaper drugs from Canada.
"The notion that we can't do this is just completely contradicted by the actual reality right now," he said.
While individuals are able to buy drugs from Canada, pharmacies and wholesalers aren't allowed to sell them to Americans.
Drugs made in the U.S. are less expensive in Canada because the country has a single-payer program, so the government has the power to negotiate with drug companies for cheaper prices. Americans can buy the same drugs from Canadian pharmacies, primarily via online pharmacies, at a cheaper rate than domestically.
Democrats have been trying for decades to legalize the practice, but measures have always fallen short.
While Democrats had hoped that they would find an unlikely champion in President Trump, who has railed against high drug prices, the White House has show no interest in endorsing the measure.
But the panel did approve another amendment from Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Al Franken, D-Minn., that lets the FDA speed up approval of generic drugs if there is no competition. The amendment seeks to address a key loophole in which drug companies buy an older generic drug with no competition and a limited patient population and then jack up the price.
Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the HELP committee will hold a hearing on drug pricing in the near future.