Utah Republican lawmaker Norm Thurston is pushing his state to pressure federal action on the ever increasing prices of prescription drugs. He does not attribute the prevailing “outrageous cost increases” of said drugs to free market. The legislator is instead proposing to import cheaper prescriptions from Canada to distribute to the state’s health care system.
Other states including Vermont, West Virginia and Oklahoma are also following similar paths- pushing legislation that would seek Trump administration’s approval to start their own plans to import drugs from Canada.
Americans buying drugs from Canada is nothing new, for years consumers have tried to purchase cheaper drugs from their northern neighbor. There are even those who fill buses for day trips to Canadian pharmacies or choosing local stores that assist them in buying drugs from abroad. Said practice, however, is illegal.
That is precisely what the states want to change. States are proposing to set up a formal process that nets broader savings. Such would allow the U.S. health department to put in place a wholesale program that buys drugs from Canada, then resells them to local pharmacies and hospitals.
Under such proposed set-up, individual states would be responsible for guaranteeing that the medicines are safe and that importing will result to savings.
Proponents of the plan are stressing the urgency of the matter. In Vermont alone, drug spending has increased by 35 percent from 2010 to 2015, the most recent for which data are available. Supporters also argue that importing drugs could result to savings of hundreds of millions of dollars. They also stand by the safety of drugs from Canada since they are made by reputable companies, often in the same facilities and by the same firms that sell in the U.S.
Utah measures follow model legislation developed by the National Academy for State Health Policy that uses a framework put in place by the 2003 federal law that created the Medicare Part D program. That law says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can approve drug importation plans if said plans will save money and will not create any public health concerns.
Should the law be passed, state health departments will be assigned to oversee the development of these programs. The health department then concludes on the specifics, after which state officials must negotiate implementation with HHS- something that could take years. That is why some are saying it will likely be an uphill battle to realize importing cheaper medicines. After all, in 15 years, HHS never approved any drug importation program.
For Thurston, the biggest argument for his proposal remains the amount of savings the state could enjoy from importing drugs. He points to Utah state analyses that say that the state could save $70 million in the private sector and another $20 million to $30 million in state-funded insurance programs.
Thurston said that if approved, the state would target 15 to 20 drugs including insulin because it is bought in large quantities, or expensive drugs that treat hepatitis C or HIV.