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Imported Drugs: Cheap But Safe?

Tibi swim wear models walks the runway at the Raleigh Hotel on Miami Beach during The Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Show being held at the Raleigh Hotel, Thursday, July 16, 2009.
(AP Photo/Jeffrey M. Boan)
When it comes to the cost of prescription-drugs, what you hear at the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, Md. is a chorus of complaints.

"I think it's awful," said Lotte Graubard, who has no insurance for all her pills and her eye-drops.

One bottle of eye-drops costs her $56, "and it only lasts me two weeks," she said.

"It's a very small bottle. I do it four times a day."

The House recently passed a bill that would legalize importing medicines from countries where they're a lot cheaper. The pharmaceutical industry fiercely opposed the legislation, arguing drug-costs reflect huge investments for research and pointing to safety concerns, echoed by supporters in the House.

"Foreigners are going to use this device to enter Canada to sell unsafe drugs to the American people," said Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.

For weeks now, as CBS News Correspondent Dan Raviv reports, the phones have been ringing in Congressional offices. Sometimes the calls are from senior citizens, saying they don't want dangerous foreign drugs. It's an organized effort, backed-up by ads.

"The issue is that Americans pay the world's highest prices for prescription drugs," said Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota. "This package of drugs here in the United States will sell for anywhere from $80 to $90. In Germany, this drug sells for $21."

Some health-reform advocates say the new bill, which faces strong opposition in the Senate is, at-best, a Band-Aid.

Still, the measure has wide appeal to consumers — thousands of whom have ridden in buses to Canada and Mexico in recent years to buy lower-cost drugs.

In Massachusetts, lawmakers have proposed publicizing the prices of prescription drugs in Canada to help consumers find the best deals.

Under proposed legislation, residents would be able to contact a state office to find out how and where they can save the most money on medications in Canada.

"The state could and should be the information broker," said state Democratic Sen. Jarrett Barrios, vice chairman of the Senate Health Care Committee. "We'd provide as much information as people need, and let them make the best cost decision as well as the safest decisions."

The plan, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, has the support of about a dozen legislators.

The supporters are looking for help from the state's U.S. senators because federal law currently bans the importation of drugs by anyone except pharmaceutical manufacturers

The Bush administration has so far supported keeping that ban in place, although Congress has recently shown a willingness to change federal laws governing drug imports from Canada.

The state must be careful not to violate federal law or help others do so, said Peter Koutoujian, chairman of the House Health Care Committee. But at the same time, the state could perform a valuable service and maybe prompt a change in federal law, he said.

"This is an idea that's gaining momentum," he said. "One would prefer to see a private effort along these lines, but to date, there has not been any such effort. The government has to step up to the plate."