PRESCRIPTION DRUGS Bush flip-flops on issue of imports, Kerry says

Bush appeared to be considering allowing imports in a campaign stop.
CRAWFORD, Texas -- In a presidential campaign marked by Republican accusations that John Kerry has flip-flopped on several key issues, the Democrat's campaign wasted little time Thursday in accusing President Bush of the same thing on the concept of importing lower-cost prescription drugs.
"He can't even make up his mind about importing drugs from Canada. Not only has he not made up his mind, but President Bush opposed our efforts," Kerry said at a campaign stop in Derry, N.H.
"Now, just the other day, the president began to waver on this," Kerry said. "Do you think he's reading the polls?"
The issue of prescription drug costs is a particularly potent one for the candidates, especially among one of the most highly prized blocs of dedicated voters -- the nation's senior citizens.
A poll conducted last month for the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found nearly 80 percent of people receiving Medicare benefits favored changing federal law to allow drug importation from Canada if it meant lower costs for their prescription medicines.
At the same time, the survey found large majorities saying they did not think drug importation would lead to a reduction in drug quality or safety, or less research and development by pharmaceutical companies.
Change of heart?
But despite the efforts of Illinois and other states and municipalities to push for drug importation programs for public workers, retirees and the elderly, the Bush administration, and the Clinton White House before that, had staunchly resisted such moves.
Earlier this week, however, Bush appeared open to considering drug importation.
"There is a lot of pressure in Congress for importation. So I think it makes sense for us to make sure that we can do so in a safe way. If it's safe, then it makes sense," Bush said in a question-and-answer session after a rally in Hudson, Wis. But, he said, he had "an obligation for the safety of our citizens."
"What I don't want is somebody to say, 'Oh, gosh, I'll be able to buy a cheaper drug from Canada,' and that drug ends up coming from another country, without proper inspection and proper safety," the president said.
Bush had previously been content to point out that the Medicare reform legislation he signed into law in December created a prescription drug benefit program. He also has said the law reduces the time it takes for cheaper generic versions of brand-name drugs to come to market.
White House statement
"We have taken a number of steps to bring down the cost of prescription drugs at the same time, while speeding the access to generic drugs and the approval of those generic drugs, as well as passing the Medicare legislation to provide seniors with the prescription drugs coverage that they have waited on for far too long," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
McClellan said Bush's comments about drug importation did not reflect a change in course by the administration. "It's always been a safety issue," he said. McClellan said a task force created by the Medicare legislation will issue recommendations on whether the safety of imported drugs could be guaranteed.
That task force, chaired by Surgeon General Richard Carmona, is expected to present its recommendations to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson by "late summer," said a spokesman for Carmona who said he could not be more specific on the timing.

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