On January 11, 2017, Senator Bernie Sanders presented his Drug Pricing Amendment to the Senate, aiming to provide Americans with more affordable pharmaceuticals. By a vote of 52-46, it did not pass.
When he ran in the Democratic primary last year, Sanders stated he had a six-step plan to lower prescriptions’ costs, one of which involved importing them from licensed Canadian pharmacies, where they are significantly cheaper. The amendment he proposed had the same strategy. On the Senate floor prior to the vote, Sanders made a final argument urging his fellow senators to vote in favour of the amendment, going so far as to quote President Trump, who recently stated that the pharmaceutical industry is “getting away with murder”. This was likely an attempt to rally the Congressional Republican majority behind this proposal as fellow Republican Trump publicly affirmed his support for importing pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately for Sanders, this strategy did not result in enough ‘Yea’ votes.
However, the blame for the amendment’s failure cannot solely be placed on Republicans, as it usually is nowadays when a progressive policy is unable to pass in Senate. In fact, 12 Republicans actually crossed party lines and voted in favour of it, including John McCain of Arizona and Ted Cruz of Texas. Meanwhile, 13 Democrats voted against it, contradicting their party’s basic values and causing the motion to fail. While the reasoning behind their position may vary, a number of Democratic and Republican Senators receive funding from pharmaceutical companies, so they may have been more inclined to vote against a policy that would curb the industry’s profits.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (D), in particular, has received a considerable amount of blowback for his ‘Nay’ vote. As he is a “top recipient” of donations from pharmaceutical companies, many criticize that he chose to act in his donors’ best interests rather than those of his middle class constituents. During his campaign for the Senate in 2013, Booker’s super-PAC received substantial contributions from pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson and Merck & Co., which helped him win the election. It appears that these industry giants continue to provide him with ample support today.
Following the recent U.S. presidential election, Senator Booker’s name has come up repeatedly as a potential 2020 candidate who could reenergize the Democratic Party. However, his opposition to this amendment may make his bid for the candidacy a little harder, since the 2016 federal election results were evidence that American voters want someone who represents the will of the people, someone who looks out for their best interests rather than those of big companies and banks. Whether this is what America actually got is debatable, but in the case of Cory Booker, it is likely that voting against a policy that would provide more affordable prescription drugs will not win him any points with working class voters.
Ironically, most of the senators who voted against the Drug Pricing Amendment, Booker included, claimed they did so for health reasons. That is, they felt the amendment did not protect against the import of unsafe pharmaceuticals. In actuality, Canadian Pharmacy drugs are more regulated than U.S. ones. The Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPR), established in 1978, is an “independent quasi-judicial tribunal” whose main objectives are to verify the efficacy of drugs entering the Canadian market and to ensure their prices are not “excessive”. The U.S. does not have any comparable review board, so the senators’ argument falls short.
Why doesn’t the U.S. create a similar organization to the Canadian PMPR to regulate prescription drugs? Since the pharmaceutical industry has a number of statesmen acting in its favour, such an initiative would be difficult to pass through Congress. Senator Sanders’ Drug Pricing Amendment is a clear example of a policy failing largely due to influential companies’ lobbying and political donations. While Big Pharma succeeds in maintaining its profit margins, working class Americans are unfortunately the ones who lose the most in this situation.
For more on the prescription drug importation debate and a detailed comparison between Canadian and American healthcare policies, click here.
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