Just one year after referring to proposals to allow Americans to import cheaper drugs from our northern neighbor, Canada, a “gimmick,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the federal government is now “open for business” on this idea. A preliminary plan to import less expensive drugs from Canada has been announced; however, certain drugs including insulin, biological drugs, intravenous drugs, and controlled substances are not permitted in the importation plan. Azar said that states must come up with proposals for “safe importation” of the drugs and submit those proposals for federal approval.
There is a second option under the new plan: “Manufacturers could import versions of any FDA-approved drugs from foreign countries — including insulin — and sell them at a lower cost than the same U.S. versions.” This option would allow drug makers to avoid contracts with middlemen known as “pharmacy benefit managers.”
The Trump Administration believes drug manufacturers might take this opportunity to offer Americans drugs they need at a lower cost because “In recent years, multiple manufacturers have stated (either publicly or in statements to the administration) that they wanted to offer lower cost versions but could not readily do so because they were locked into contracts with other parties in the supply chain.” Those other parties were pharmacy benefit managers.
An Old Idea Gets New Life
Azar said the federal government has wanted to provide lower drug prices to American citizens for many, many years but previous plans were not able to protect American consumers from getting dangerous, counterfeit drugs. In a recent statement Azar indicated, “Today we are saying…there is a pathway and we are laying out criteria for states, wholesale drug distributors and pharmacies to convince us they have a plan that protects the integrity of the drug supply chain.”
At the current time, Colorado, Florida, and Vermont have approved legislation to import drugs from Canada and are working on proposals to do just that.
Opposition to the Drug Importation Plan
Stephen J. Ubl, President and Chief Executive Officer of the brand-name drug trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the plan is “far too dangerous for American patients” because there is no way to guarantee the safety of the drugs that will come into this country from Canada. He asserted that drugs coming through Canada could have come from anywhere in the world and may not even be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Other opponents of the drug importation plan are also concerned about the safety and quality of drugs that will make their way into Americans’ hands. The chances of Americans getting counterfeit drugs will increase, and American lives could be in great danger due to counterfeit drugs.
Trish Riley, the Executive Director for The National Academy for State Health Policy, an agency working with states on their importation plans, said the plan to have states set up programs “could take years to set up because of the slow federal rule-making process.”
As drug prices soar in the United States, many Americans are looking for more affordable medications, and getting the drugs they need from Canada at a fraction of the price they’re currently paying is one very appealing option.