Trump administration issues plan to allow imports of cheaper prescription drugs

The Trump administration on Wednesday announced a plan for allowing the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from other countries, a key step in President Trump's efforts to lower drug prices.

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a plan outlining the steps it will take, including issuing a regulation to allow for states and pharmacies to submit drug importation pilot programs for approval.

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The move is preliminary and leaves several steps remaining before patients will actually get access to cheaper imported drugs, but it represents an important change in position, showing that the federal government is open to drug importation for the first time ever.  

“The door was closed,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar told reporters. “What we are saying is, ‘We are open. There is a pathway. We can be convinced.’”

The move is a break from what has been the more traditional Republican position opposing drug importation, warning of safety concerns. 

Trump has railed against high drug prices and is eager to show signs of progress in the fight to lower costs as the 2020 election nears. Drug prices consistently poll as a top issue for voters.  

The move is a change in position for Azar, who last year warned that drug importation was a "gimmick" that would not work.

Drug importation is an idea usually more associated with Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been a leading champion of the idea.

Azar said that new technologies have allowed importation to be done more safely than in the past and added that Trump, who is a major proponent of drug importation, is always “challenging” him to “find more solutions.”

“He is always pushing me, challenging me to find more solutions to help the American patient,” Azar said of Trump. 

Azar acknowledged that there are “complex operational questions to be answered” about drug importation.

Officials did not give a timeline for when the plan would go into effect. 

Azar said any proposals would be reviewed to ensure the imported drugs would be safe. 

The pharmaceutical industry, a powerful force in Washington, opposes the plan, warning it is unsafe. 

“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,’" said Steve Ubl, CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. "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.”

Azar said the administration did not consult them. 

“We haven't spoken about this plan with the pharmaceutical industry,” he said.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderGOP braces for impeachment brawl McConnell tightlipped as impeachment furor grows GOP senator: 'Inappropriate' to discuss opponents, but impeachment a 'mistake' MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate's health committee, gave some praise to the idea, saying "I welcome it," though he cautioned that the plan would need to ensure safety. 

Democratic lawmakers were largely silent on the proposal. 

--Updated at 11:57 a.m.