On Wednesday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) submitted an amendment intended to tackle the epidemic of high drug prices in the United States. The amendment would have established a “deficit-neutral reserve fund relating to lower prescription drug prices for Americans by importing drugs from Canada.”
High drug prices were a major issue in the Presidential primaries. Sanders made lowering prescription drugs a key campaign issue. Sanders championed the idea as far back as 1999 when he became the first member of Congress to host a bus trip to purchase cancer medications north of the border at a fraction of the price. After his successful trip, many Democrats followed suit.
In a Republican-controlled Senate, Democrats needed the support of some Republicans for a chance to have this amendment passed. They got that support from unexpected allies across the aisle; 12 Republicans supported the amendment, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
Nevertheless, the amendment failed with a final vote of (52-46) – thanks in part to 13 Democrats who sided with the Republican majority and the interests of Big Pharma.
Meet the 13 Democrats who voted against reducing drug prices
Campaign contributions from Big Pharma appear to have a strong correlation with the voting behavior of Democratic Senators on this bill. Based on records from OpenSecrets.org, seven of the Senators who voted against the bill were in the top ten recipients of contributions from Big Pharma among Democratic Senators.
Most notable in this group is Cory Booker (D-NJ). The Senator gained a lot of praise for testifying against Jeff Sessions, who has been accused of racism and having a poor record on voting rights and criminal justice reform. Booker has also been touted as a likely nominee in the 2020 presidential Democratic primaries.
However, Booker has very close ties with pharmaceutical companies. He was the top recipient of contributions from pharmaceutical companies during his Senate elections, more than any other candidate in either party. Booker also gave remarks at an event for pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co.
This is another case where big money in politics from special interests has more voting power than average Americans. According to a 2015 poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 72 percent of Americans support this amendment and an equal number believe that drug costs are unreasonable.
Sen. Booker responded to the criticism with a tweet claiming that he does support importing from Canada. His rationale for opposing the amendment, he claims, is that he felt that the amendment didn’t meet “basic FDA requirements.”
Grateful to you. Please know, a number of dems who voted no last night AGREE WE MUST IMPORT. But we believe basic FDA standards must be met. https://t.co/Xgpg5ISr1J
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) January 12, 2017
The amendment’s text, however, states that imported prescription drugs must be “safe and affordable,” and conducted by “American pharmacists, wholesalers, and individuals with a valid prescription from a provider licensed to practice in the United States.”
In addition, Health Canada and the FDA conduct regulatory cooperation activities under the Canada-United States Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC), which was established by President Obama and ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The joint agreement is intended to “protect the safety and welfare” of the citizens of both countries. The two administrations work closely together to “harmonize and align their pre and post-marketing surveillance requirements and standards.”
Sen. Booker didn’t clarify why he didn’t request for the language to be strengthened if he felt that the text wasn’t sufficient to meet his requirements.