Washington Consumers seeking to save on prescription costs would be allowed to buy medicines from abroad by mail order under legislation the House passed Wednesday.
Lawmakers soundly rejected a broader measure that would have permitted distributors to import American-made pharmaceuticals that are sold more cheaply in other countries because of price controls.
The Food and Drug Administration opposed both measures, saying it cannot guarantee whether imported drugs are safe or effective. People caught ordering drugs from foreign sources frequently get warning letters from the FDA.
Prescription drugs can cost three to four times less in Europe and Canada than they cost in the United States.
A 30-day supply of Claritin, an allergy medication, costs $63 in the United States, compared to $16 in Europe, according to the Life Extension Foundation, an advocacy group.
"The only threat to consumers is that our seniors and others can't afford to buy the drugs they need to stay alive," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.
The mail-order measure passed, 324-101, as an amendment to a spending bill for the FDA and the Agriculture Department. A second amendment, approved on a voice vote, would give the FDA $1 million to check patent claims by pharmaceutical companies trying to delay approval of generic versions of their drugs.
The overall bill was approved 414-16.
The Senate has yet to consider its version of the spending bill.
Separately, the White House is working on a plan to offer discount cards to elderly people so they can save money on drug purchases. Critics of the proposal dismissed it as a gimmick, saying the Medicare discounts would not go far enough.
The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether brand-name drug companies are using "improper or untimely listing of patents" to block approval of generics.
"Brand-name pharmaceutical companies have really become quite proficient in manipulating the law to keep generic versions from reaching the market," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo.
Opponents of easing restrictions on medicine imports argued that they could result in consumers buying counterfeit or contaminated drugs.