Drug importation won't save dollars or lives
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A recent oped in The Hill by MedShadow Foundation founder Suzanne Robotti claims that permitting Americans to import prescription drugs from Canada would save dollars and lives.

It would do neither. Prescription drug importation has several notable proponents, like Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain Senate outlook slides for GOP Juan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden Democrats lead in three battleground Senate races: poll MORE (R-Ariz.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Teachers' union President Randi Weingarten calls Trump administration plan to reopen schools 'a train wreck'; US surpasses 3 million COVID-19 cases The Hill's Coronavirus Report: DC's Bowser says protesters and nation were 'assaulted' in front of Lafayette Square last month; Brazil's Bolsonaro, noted virus skeptic, tests positive for COVID-19 Hillicon Valley: QAnon scores wins, creating GOP problem | Supreme Court upholds regulation banning robocalls to cellphones | Foreign hackers take aim at homebound Americans | Uber acquires Postmates MORE (D-Minn.), and Bernie SandersBernie SandersTammy Duckworth is the epitome of the American Dream On The Money: Deficit rises to record .7 trillion amid pandemic: CBO | Democrats sidestep budget deal by seeking 0B in emergency spending | House panel advances spending bill with funding boost to IRS Biden-Sanders unity task force calls for Fed, US Postal Service consumer banking MORE (I-Vt.), along with President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE. Without question, all of them sincerely want to make medicines more affordable. But importation wouldn't save patients much money.

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Instead, it would hamstring the Food and Drug Administrations's (FDA) ability to protect American patients and slow the rate of medical innovation.

 

Time and time again, the FDA has warned the public that it cannot guarantee the safety of imported drugs. Former Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, for instance, has extensively cautioned against the threat of counterfeit or adulterated medicines from abroad.

In response, many lawmakers now advocate for more limited "re-importation" policies that would permit Americans to purchase price-controlled medicines from Canadian pharmacies only if the drugs were originally manufactured in the United States.

Voilà — the dangerous drugs argument becomes null and void, right?

Not quite. It would be virtually impossible to ensure consumers only buy drugs from "reputable" pharmacies. There are more than 3,400 rogue online pharmacies.And these sites can look quite legitimate — a major online Canadian pharmacy recently smuggled nearly $80 million of unapproved drugs into the United States.

Even if every single imported pill was safe and legitimate, Americans wouldn't save as much money as re-importation advocates claim. In fact, consumers' actual savings would be less than one percent of total drug spending, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In part, that's because Canada would restrict exports to Americans to prevent local medicine shortages.

This has happened before. More than ten years ago, Canadian officials took steps to restrict the flow of drugs to American consumers. The executive director of the Canadian Pharmacists Association explained the decision, stating "Our supply chain is geared up to meet the need of 30 million Canadians, and we don't have the scale of operation to be able to respond to the likely demand of the U.S. [population]."

Canada's health minister at the time echoed that sentiment. "To me, it is a matter of common sense that Canada cannot be the drugstore of the United States. Neither American consumers nor Canadian suppliers should have any illusions otherwise," Ujjal Dosanjh said.

Importing drugs would also endanger Americans' long-term health by preventing the creation of new lifesaving medicines. American pharmaceutical companies, which are responsible for a majority of drugs being researched and tested today, rely on drug sales to offset their development costs.

Only 20 percent of drugs generate enough revenue to match their development costs.

Allowing drug re-importation would make it much harder to earn a return on investment. If Americans start purchasing drugs at below-market prices, revenues would collapse. Drug developers would have no choice but to throw in the towel on the next line of breakthrough treatments.

That'd be tragic not just for patients, but for society too. Developing cures for diseases like Alzheimer's — which will cost the nation over a trillion dollars annually by 2050 — is the surest strategy to meaningfully reduce healthcare spending.

American medical innovation — not the re-importation of price-controlled drugs — is the only way to save dollars and lives. Suzanne has it backwards. American lawmakers should work to stop other nations from instituting price controls. Right now, the globe is free-riding off American research and development. If the global marketplace were to pay its fair share, drug prices would drop and innovation would explode. 

Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in health care policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is The Way Out of Obamacare.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.