Trump weighs drug imports from Canada, gets hammered by pharma lobby

Anjalee Khemlani
Senior Reporter

The Trump administration is weighing a plan to allow the U.S. to import some prescription drugs from Canada — an idea opposed by some in the pharmaceutical industry and President Donald Trump’s own Republican Party.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on Wednesday his agency was evaluating ways to lower drug costs — which includes allowing Canadian imports, or rerouting distribution of drugs in foreign countries to the U.S.

The administration has recently floated several consumer-friendly plans meant to bring down health care costs.

“Today’s announcement outlines the pathways the Administration intends to explore to allow safe importation of certain prescription drugs to lower prices and reduce out of pocket costs for American patients,” Azar said in a statement.

Allowing drug imports from lower-cost regions is a policy objective that’s been debated for years, but opponents have cited safety as a reason to block the move. As such, the HHS trial balloon was met with harsh criticism by PhRMA, the lobbying group for the pharmaceutical industry.

“The Administration’s importation scheme is far too dangerous for American patients. There is no way to guarantee the safety of drugs that come into the country from outside the United States’ gold-standard supply chain,” said PhRMA CEO Stephen J. Ubl, in a statement.

“Drugs coming through Canada could have originated from anywhere in the world and may not have undergone stringent review by the FDA,” Ubl added.

“Law enforcement has repeatedly warned that importation schemes could worsen the opioid crisis and jeopardize public safety,” he said, adding that Canadian officials have also expressed misgivings about exporting to the U.S.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar listens during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

How it might work

Generic drug companies have been engaged in multiple lawsuits over price fixing allegations, and have been facing increasing political pressure to lower their costs. However, Congressional Republicans have been largely cool on the idea of drug imports.

“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,” Azar said in a statement.

HHS pushed back against questions about safety. Imports from Canada would include “conditions to ensure the importation poses no additional risk to the public’s health and safety and that it will achieve significant cost savings to the American consumer.”

It also would ensure that labeling clearly reflects the medicine’s original distribution market was in Canada, the department added.

The second idea would let manufacturers import versions of FDA-approved products that are the same as the U.S. version that they sell in foreign countries. That may be enough to capture lower prices seen abroad.

Still, the pharma lobby evoked Azar’s own past words against him to oppose drug imports.

“In the words of Secretary Azar just last year, drug importation is a ‘gimmick’ and ‘the last thing we need is open borders for unsafe drugs,’” PhRMA’s Ubl said.

“Rather than surrender the safety of Americans by importing failed polices from single-payer countries, we should work on solutions here at home that would lower patient out-of-pocket costs at the pharmacy counter.”

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