WESTERN MARYLAND constituents of Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett may have been puzzled by the recent barrage of mailers, radio ads and phone calls charging that the conservative Republican is part of a drive that would make the abortion pill RU-486 available to any teen-age girl with a credit card and an Internet connection.
What's happened is that Mr. Bartlett and two dozen other staunchly anti-abortion lawmakers have been targeted in a well-heeled campaign aimed at intimidating them into dropping their support for legislation that would allow Americans to buy U.S.-made drugs from Canada and Europe, where the drugs are much cheaper.
The charge is fallacious, and the tactic despicable. But some good has come of this crude and clumsy lobbying effort conducted in cooperation with the pharmaceutical industry. It has awakened former allies of the industry to the lengths drugmakers will go in order to protect their fat profits, and appears to have boosted prospects that Congress will act to curb soaring drug prices.
Reimporting medicines from countries that have negotiated discounts from U.S. manufacturers, as called for in the bill expected to be debated by the House today, may not be the most practical solution to the problem. Yet it may be the only one available until Congress is finally so ticked off it does away once and for all with a system under which Americans subsidize drug coverage for the entire world - with the uninsured elderly and working poor paying the heftiest tab.
Resentment is clearly building as the drug lobby grows more brazen in its tactics.
Ads being run in Mr. Bartlett's district by the Seniors Coalition, an industry-backed group, urge him to support legislation that would add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, assuring drugmakers access to a huge market backed by taxpayer subsidies. This is a tough vote for him and other GOP conservatives who fear the legislation will create a new entitlement too costly for the government to bear.
Yet at the same time, the lawmakers are under attack on reimportation by the Traditional Values Coalition, a group basing its abortion pill claims on legal research performed by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America - the drug lobby. Lawmakers suspect that PHRMA is also financing the ads and phone banks run by the Traditional Values Coalition, but a PHRMA spokesman refused to comment on "strategy."
The abortion pill angle is bogus because the reimportation bill would do nothing to change tight regulations that now apply to RU-486, which can be dispensed in this country only by a physician in the office. Physicians would be allowed to order the pills at discount rates, but not patients.
Such desperation measures suggest the drug industry is beginning to panic. It should. Consumers across the country, appalled that life-saving medicines are held for ransom by one of the world's most profitable industries, are starting to fight back.