Medical Devices and Prescription Drug Policy

Trump could mean new momentum for drug imports


President-elect Donald Trump’s vows to bring down drug prices and give consumers more options could give new momentum to the long fight to allow importations of prescription drugs into the U.S.

Proponents of allowing U.S. residents to buy prescription drugs from other countries hope that having a supporter of the proposal in the White House will finally give it the nudge it needs to pass Congress. 

“I’m hopeful. There’s a different political landscape out there, so it’s in a sense more possible than ever, and it’s something American consumers really want” said Gabriel Levitt, president of the Prescription Justice Action Group, a nonprofit that supports drug imports.

{mosads}“Given the political winds, I’m optimistic that we could see legislative reforms to help more Americans obtain lower cost imported medications.”

What was once seen as a Democratic issue has increasingly gathered Republican support over the years, but has never found enough backers in Congress to pass.

Backers of drug importation argue that it allows consumers to buy medicines at lower prices, but opponents say importing drugs could bring in unsafe drugs that don’t meet U.S. standards.

While the Bush and Obama administrations both rejected the idea, Trump supports it as part of a plan to bring down drug prices for consumers.

“Congress will need the courage to step away from the special interests and do what is right for Americans… Allowing consumers access to imported, safe and dependable drugs from overseas will bring more options to consumers,” Trump’s healthcare reform proposal reads. 

Ahead of Trump’s inauguration, lawmakers have begun introducing legislation that would allow drug imports.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Miss.) reintroduced legislation this year that would allow individuals to import prescription drugs from Canadian pharmacies.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who frequently says bringing down drug prices is one of the few issues he agrees with Trump on, also plans to introduce a bill related to drug imports this year. Sanders has called on his Democratic and Republican colleagues to “step up to the Pharmaceutical industry” and “fight for the American consumer.”

But there is some uncertainty about whether Trump will follow through on his support of the proposal. While he shamed the pharmaceutical industry in a press conference last week for “getting away with murder” and vowed to change the way the government bids on drugs, he was silent on drug imports.

Trump has also been criticized in the past for abandoning other campaign promises, from naming a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton to his claim that Mexico will pay for a southern border wall, even as Congress prepares to spend U.S. money for the wall instead.

“With Trump being in the White House, you never know. He talks about wanting to do something about prescription drugs, and so it’s hard to say. But we have no choice but to try everything we possibly can,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who is co-sponsoring drug importation legislation with Sanders.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that a lot of times an idea seems almost impossible to pass, and there comes a point in time where its moment comes. When people are feeling like some of these pharmaceutical companies are putting the gun to their head and they’re complaining to their representatives… The cost of prescription drugs is the number one issue, even beyond the Affordable Care Act.”

The idea has broad public support. A September poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 66 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans thought Americans should be allowed to buy prescription drugs imported from Canada.

And while importation remains illegal, millions of Americans every year purchase drugs online from foreign pharmacies.

Still, pharmaceutical companies and others in healthcare fiercely oppose the measure.

“Ensuring patients have access to needed medicines is critical, but the importation of unapproved medicines, whether from Canada or elsewhere in the world, is the wrong answer,” the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America trade group, or PhRMA, writes on its website.

Pharmaceutical companies argue that allowing imported drugs into the U.S. could create a flood of unsafe drugs.

“It has become very easy for counterfeiters to make bottles and packages look genuine, but the reality is they are often filled with laced, adulterated or fake pills that are dangerous to patients,” the group warned.

Because of safety concerns, some doubt the proposal will ever get the support it needs to pass. 

William Pierce, who worked at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under President George W. Bush, acknowledged that the proposal has gained the support of more Republicans, including Trump. 

“Republicans have traditionally been against it… Democrats have been for it because it sounds very good,” he said. 

“It appears that, from what is going on, the tables may be turning politically…I don’t believe it means it will pass. The arguments still remain, and they’re still completely valid.”

A vote on an amendment proposed by Sanders last week offered a preview of how Democrats could line up on the issue.

The amendment, which was non-binding, would have allowed American pharmacists, wholesalers and individuals with a valid prescription to purchase drugs from Canada.

13 Democrats voted against it, though several added later that they opposed the amendment because it didn’t address safety concerns. 12 Republicans supported it.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John McCain

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