Democrats scrambled on Friday to resolve a stalemate over whether to permit imports of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and elsewhere as part of a larger effort to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system.

Work on health reform legislation, President Barack Obama's top domestic priority, has stalled in the Senate over a bipartisan proposal to allow patients and pharmacies to import U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved medications as long as they register with the federal agency.

Importing prescription drugs, also known as reimportation, has been an issue for years as U.S. consumers look for cheaper alternatives for prescription medications that can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year, especially for those without health insurance.

Despite days of debate over the measure, Democrats remained divided over the issue in large part over safety concerns.

Some critics charged the real split was over the $80 billion, 10-year deal under which drug companies promised the White House and certain senators they would charge the government less for some medications and pay higher taxes.

The critics charge the industry would make up for any lost profits from the deal by raising prices elsewhere in the market. Financial analysts and others say the companies have already begun to charge more for many widely used medications.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said there was significant concern particularly among people not party to the deal that it may not have demanded enough from the pharmaceutical industry.

The industry could be more helpful in taking steps to win over skeptical lawmakers, he said in a conference call with Families USA, a consumer advocacy group that supports Democrats' push to overhaul the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system.

Drugmakers are the largest health industry sector to back Obama's bid to expand access to healthcare.


A White House official said the Obama administration was not fighting the drug importation proposal offered by Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan along with a number of Republicans, including Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in last year's presidential election.

That's just not true, said the official who asked not to be identified.

But suggesting the administration was less than enthusiastic about it, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg sent a letter this week saying the agency supported drug importation but had safety concerns about Dorgan's plan.

The standoff has pushed back debate on the health bill until next week. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he wants a final vote on the bill before Congress breaks for Christmas.

There are concerns. It's something we're trying to work out, said Senator Charles Schumer. I think it will be resolved in the next little while. I certainly don't think it will stand in the way of getting a bill.

Other Democrats have offered an alternative to allow drug imports as long as U.S. health officials deemed them safe.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, Senior Vice President Ken Johnson said importing drugs was dangerous but that the industry lobby group would not oppose importation measures that require such certification.

There's no way for the FDA to guarantee the safety and efficacy of medicines brought to the United States outside of its control. There's no way to do it he said.