- Three U.S. senators have called on the Department of Health and Human Services to fast track the importation of a select group of drugs from Canada, citing the need among Americans for cheaper medications, particularly in the wake of recent price hikes.
- Sens. Charles Grassley, R-IA, Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, and John McCain, R-AZ, drafted the Feb. 14 letter to newly appointed HHS Secretary Tom Price, requesting the U.S. turn to Canadian imports when a drug loses its patent, experiences "unexpected" price increases or has no direct competition in the U.S.
- The letter comes about a month after Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, and Klobuchar proposed an amendment to the Congressional budget resolution that would have allowed individuals, pharmacists and wholesalers in the U.S. to obtain prescription medications from Canada. The amendment was shot down, however, in a 52-46 vote against.
The option to import cheaper drugs from Canada has actually been around for many years. The Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 allowed U.S. wholesalers and pharmacists to bring in prescription drugs from their northern neighbor so long as the process met a number of requirements, including proper record keeping, laboratory testing and labeling.
But the act requires the HHS secretary's approval before that importation can take place — hence the letter to Price.
"As public concern over rising costs of prescription drugs continues, there is a need to reduce the financial burden that prescription drugs are placing on Americans," the senators wrote, adding that "[c]urrent circumstances present you with the opportunity to use existing statutory authority to quickly restore competition to the market with the introduction of cheaper, imported alternatives."
In order to approve drug imports from Canada, Price would have to conclude such actions would significantly cut costs for U.S. consumers without compromising drug safety or increasing health risks. While the senators conceded those provisions "may be a difficult standard" to meet, they highlighted the secretary's ability to tailor his approval so that it would work under current market constraints and not impair pharmaceutical innovators.
The senators also made a case for fast tracking the decision, which they claim would bypass some of the regulatory constraints that dissuade manufacturers from making cheaper treatments available.
Turing, Valeant, Mylan and, most recently, Marathon Pharmaceuticals have all sparked public and Congressional outrage over price hikes of their respective products. Without a clear strategy from Congress or the industry on how to solve pricing issues, it is more likely than not that initiatives like importation of foreign drugs will get dusted off and reproposed.