HOW HE SEES IT Deal with Australia will hurt U.S. seniors



By RAMON CASTELLBLANCH
KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE
On Aug. 3, President Bush launched a stealth attack on our ability to import affordable prescription drugs from Canada and other industrialized nations.
While Congress, state legislators and local elected officials are busy debating how to import medicines and improve Americans' access to them, Bush has negotiated and signed into law a trade agreement designed to sabotage these efforts.
The agreement, known as the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement, was ratified by Congress last month and signed by Bush on Aug. 3. It will make it harder for people in the United States to get low-price medicines from Australia and may dramatically raise their prices.
While we don't import many drugs from Australia, the agreement is the big drug-makers' model for making prescription drugs in other industrialized countries more expensive and harder to get.
Pharmaceutical companies intend to use it as a template for trade agreements with other industrialized countries, including Canada, thereby cutting off our options for getting reasonably priced drugs.
What it does
The agreement gives drug-makers the ability to block similar products made by companies outside the United States from entering the country. If Congress or any other government body (such as state or local governments) pass future drug importation laws, the recent free-trade agreement would make them illegal as they affect Australian drugs. It would lock these anti-importation provisions into our trade laws, making them very difficult to override. Following the same pattern, low-price drugs from other industrialized countries such as Canada may become impossible to import.
What's more, the agreement would raise the price of the 10 most prescribed brands of drugs in Australia by between 70 percent and 300 percent, according to an Australian National University report. This means that Australian drugs would no longer be a good deal for people in the United States even if we could import them.
Bush got these provisions through Congress by putting them in a trade bill with goodies for lots of members. Some even decried the agreement's prescription-drug provisions while voting for it.
Not in best interest
This policy was not implemented in the best interest of American seniors and others who rely on affordable medicine.
Before the ink was even dry on the agreement, it was learned that two of the U.S. negotiators who cooked it up are moving to high-paying jobs with the pharmaceutical industry. Ralph Ives, the assistant U.S. trade representative for pharmaceutical policy on the Australian deal, will take a job with AdvaMed, an industry group, this month. And Claude Burcky, his head negotiator on intellectual property rights, is now director of global government affairs at Abbott Laboratories.
Importing medicines is essential for the health of people in the United States. High prices are keeping many U.S. seniors from getting all the medicines they need.
Prescription drugs from countries such as Canada offer an excellent way to get around the exorbitant prices big pharmaceutical firms charge in the United States. Some of the most common drugs we buy here are more than half off in many other industrialized countries. That's why four in every five U.S. seniors support the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and other industrialized nations.
The president ignored the people and sneaked this deal through in a despicable move. All Americans -- seniors and nonseniors alike -- ought to be outraged.
XCastellblanch is assistant professor in the Health Education Department at San Francisco State University. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.

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