Washington The push to legalize prescription drug imports has a surprising new ally as the issue gains momentum in Congress.
CVS Corp., which operates more than 4,100 pharmacies nationwide, became the first drug store chain to support the importation of prescription medicines.
Thomas Ryan, CVS chairman, president and chief executive officer, said such a move would be a recognition of reality -- a growing, somewhat shadowy business enterprise that he said is valued at $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year, far more than other estimates of the cross-border drug trade.
"Millions of Americans have already opted to import drugs because they can't afford not to. We owe it to them to face this issue head on and not look the other way," Ryan told the government task force reviewing drug importation.
Pharmacies also are hoping to prevent the loss of sales to the foreign drug industry, especially since some studies have shown that purchases of drugs from abroad have cut into U.S. drug store sales.
Ryan's comments came a day after Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said legalizing imports appeared inevitable, a notable statement because the Bush administration and GOP leaders in Congress have cited safety concerns as the main reason that they oppose drug imports.
A Thompson spokesman said Wednesday that the secretary, a savvy political veteran who served 14 years as Wisconsin's governor, was offering his personal political opinion, not reflecting a change in the Bush administration's position.
But lawmakers agreed that there was increasing momentum in support of the issue, even among Republicans who voted against legalization last year. Lawmakers who are talking up the new Medicare drug discount card are encountering complaints from constituents who say it will not do enough to lower prices.
"I just sense the buzz," Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., said. "A lot of members are in their districts talking about this drug discount card. ... I have no doubt that many seniors are bringing this issue to their attention."
Boehlert voted against importation last year but now supports drug imports from Canada.
Ira Loss, a health care expert at Washington Analysis, a financial research company, said Thompson's comments sent a signal that the "White House is prepared to bail on importation for political purposes if they need it near the end" of the presidential campaign.
Ryan and three Republican governors who also testified Wednesday said the federal government could no longer avoid the issue because of rising drug costs.