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Obama seeks drug imports outside of US health bill

* White House says Obama ‘committed to moving forward’

* Drugs often sold at cheaper prices in other countries

* US drug regulators have expressed concerns

WASHINGTON, Dec 20 (Reuters) - The White House pledged on Sunday to move forward on allowing imports of safe prescription drugs from nations like Canada where they are less expensive, but not in the healthcare reform legislation now before Congress.

The pharmaceutical industry’s powerful Washington lobbying group backs the healthcare reform legislation that is President Barack Obama’s top legislative priority, but its important support for that effort could evaporate if drug imports are included.

White House adviser David Axelrod said the administration will pursue the issue, but not in the healthcare reform bill.

“Let me be clear. The president supports ... safe re-importation of drugs into this country,” Axelrod told CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “There’s no reason why Americans should pay a premium for the pharmaceuticals that people in other countries pay less for.”

The importation of drugs from other countries has been proposed for years as a way to lower prescription drug costs in the United States. The same prescription drugs sold in the United States often are sold at much lower prices in other countries, including Canada.

Both Obama and Republican rival John McCain supported drug imports during last year’s presidential campaign. But the Obama administration recently issued a letter from the Food and Drug Administration citing safety concerns.

“The president is committed to moving forward once we resolve the issues that the FDA has. That’s his responsibility, to protect the American people,” Axelrod said.

The Senate on Dec. 15 rejected two amendments to the healthcare bill to allow drug re-importation.

Allowing these cheaper drugs to be sold to Americans could cut revenues for the roughly $315 billion pharmaceutical industry, which strongly opposes the idea.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a key White House ally in the healthcare reform push, has lobbied heavily against importation, and likely would not support a final healthcare bill if it was included.

In a letter sent to Republican Senator Sam Brownback on Dec. 8, the FDA said it saw “significant safety concerns” with a drug re-importation amendment proposed in the Senate.

The FDA said overseeing the proposed drug imports would be “logistically challenging” and “resource intensive.”

Reporting by Will Dunham, editing by Vicki Allen