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Asked About Charge Of Meddling, Gibbs Says FDA Drug Imports Stand Hasn't Changed

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Neither the FDA nor the White House has directly denied the charge, and there's speculation the Obama Administration came out against the Dorgan measure because of its June deal with the pharmaceutical industry.

TPMDC's Christina Bellantoni asked Gibbs during the press briefing today how the White House responded to Dorgan's charge.

"I would simply say, concerns by the Food and Drug Administration about reimportation are not something that came to the fore in the Obama administration. ... Drug reimportation, which the president supports, if one can do it safely, were the concern in the previous administration's Food and Drug Administration," Gibbs said. "So this is about a ten-year concern by the Food and Drug Administration in terms of safety."

It's worth noting here that the FDA has suggested to us that there was internal discussion about whether to send a letter on the Dorgan amendment at all. We're looking into the history of the FDA's stance on the issue. (See update below.)

Dorgan argued that his amendment, which would have saved the government nearly $20 billion in 10 years, and saved consumers billions more, contained strong protective measures and safeguards. The drug industry has long opposed allowing prescription imports from countries such as Canada where prices are lower.

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said Sunday on CNN that the administration backs the concept of drug re-importation, just not in the health care bill. The administration will move on the issue "once we resolve the issues that the FDA has," Axelrod said.

Meanwhile, asked about the matter by TPMDC, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) fingered the White House's deal with PhRMA as responsible for the demise of the Dorgan amendment, which she cosponsored.

"We had the votes on drug importation as you know, they held out for I don't know how many days before we had the ability to even vote on it. But that was, in the meantime, to secure the votes necessary to defeat it," she said. "I think it was the pharmaceutical deal....that's why we didn't end up getting it." The measure was defeated 51-48, falling short of the necessary 60 votes.

Here's the full exchange with Gibbs today:

QUESTION: Senator Dorgan has charged that the White House pressured the FDA to send this letter that helps kill the drug reimportation amendment. What is the White House response to this?

And I know a lot of people refer to (inaudible) FDA. The FDA is not denying it. Senator Dorgan stands by his charge.

GIBBS: Well, I would simply say, concerns by the Food and Drug Administration about reimportation are not something that came to the fore in the Obama administration. Right? Drug reimportation, which the president supports, if one can do it safely, were the concern in the previous administration's Food and Drug Administration and the concern of the Food and Drug Administration to the administration previous to that. Right?

So this is about a ten-year concern by the Food and Drug Administration in terms of safety. So I think the notion that somehow this argument cropped up in the last two weeks by our Food and Drug Administration, I think if you simply look back at the history of concerns that have been had about safety, they've been there for quite some time.

(Additional reporting by Christina Bellantoni and Brian Beutler)

Late Update: Jack Calfee of the American Enterprise Institute, who has studied the drug imports issue, tells TPMmuckraker that the FDA has long voiced safety concerns about imports -- concerns that Calfee thinks are overblown.

"They're going to want to avoid any situation in which someone is going to blame them if there's a problem with drugs coming into the country," he says. Calfee also notes that "everybody assumed the White House really, really did not want the Dorgan amendment because they had the deal with PhRMA."

None of this speaks to the core issue of how, or whether, the White House pressured the FDA to send the letter raising safety concerns about the Dorgan measure.