Local critics warn drug importation from Canada dangerous, destined for rejection by feds

Flickr/David Goehring

SKY HIGH: Spending on prescription drugs has risen rapidly over past decades, but local health care advocates say Vermont’s new law allowing drug imports from Canada isn’t the answer.

This month Vermont became the first state to allow the importation of less expensive drugs from Canada, but local critics say the move has no chance of federal approval, and could lead to a dangerous flood of counterfeit medicines.

On May 16, Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill permitting importation of prescription drugs into the U.S. at a lower cost than domestic counterparts. State lawmakers touted the measure as a way to counter skyrocketing drug prices.

But critics argue the new law will have unexpected negative consequences. Reimporting drugs, they say, opens a door for unsafe counterfeits, undermines domestic drug sales and will force U.S. drug makers to raise prices to cover billion-dollar research and development costs.

The idea also requires certification from the federal government, which many experts see as unlikely under the Trump administration.

“The program can’t function without federal approval, and the government is not going to now suddenly change its stance and allow Vermont to reimport prescription drugs from abroad,” said Meg Hansen, executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom.

RELATED: Hansen: Vermont Legislature approves whack-a-mole game with Canada drug reimportation

According to Hansen, the new law does not address the regulatory burdens or middlemen sales that inflate prices, and it undercuts the use of cheaper generic drugs as a means to drive down prices.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

FAKE OR GENUINE? Critics of importing less expensive drugs from Canada worry that loose regulations will open the door to the influx of dangerous counterfeit drugs.

The FDA human effectiveness testing and approval process for a single drug takes up to 14 years and costs an applicant about $2.6 billion. The need to recoup that money is a main driver of sky-high drug costs. Profits made off drugs bought in the states must be funneled back into the research and development of other potential drugs.

“That’s how the cycle goes,” Hansen said. “If profits are being lost, then prices will be raised to make up for those lost funds that would then be invested into the research and development.”

Hansen said lawmakers mean well, because pharmaceutical drug prices are unaffordable and need to be addressed. But passing “backdoor” legislation is not the way to accomplish anything.

The idea of reimporting drugs into the U.S. from Canada has been pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for decades.

In 1999, while still a U.S. congressman, Sanders traveled across the Canadian border into Quebec with a busload of Vermonters to get prescriptions from Canadian doctors and to buy the drugs at the lower Canadian cost.

“This is a gimmick that he did,” Hansen said. “He [also] tried to introduce a law into the Senate last year. They know it’s not going into effect, but it’s a talking point. It’s a narrative saying ‘hey, I care about Vermonters. I care about prescription drugs.’”

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and four of his most recent commissioners  have warned against importation of drugs from other countries. Their main concern is the risk that patients would be exposed to phony, substandard or contaminated medicines.

Hansen says this is due to large-scale counterfeit organizations that tamper with logistics processes and inject fake drugs into the distribution system.

“It’s a recipe for disaster — we don’t know what’s coming in,” Hansen said. “The FDA has no way of ensuring safety and security of what drugs are coming in.”

Bob Orleck, a retired pharmacist and lawyer from Randolph, Vt., said when government gets involved in a program it tends to “screw it up.” The solution to high drug prices is to open up the free market.

“Businesses and the drug industry are a lot smarter than government officials, so they’ll find a way in order to capitalize on whatever they do,” he said.

Orleck, who was a pharmacist for about 45 years, said he saw drug prices skyrocket during that time. He said pharmacists used to be able to sell drugs at a reasonable cost and still be able to turn a profit off it.

“When a drug company would run into a price increase … they would actually write a letter to all the pharmacists and say they apologize because the cost of X ingredient increased, and they would be increasing their product by that amount,” Orleck said.

He said as time went on, price increases came more frequently, to the point where there was a 1 percent price raise across the board. Eventually, he said, they stopped notifying about price increases.

“There was a time when drugs were very reasonable. I think that was also a time where government was not involved, except in making decisions whether a company had proven if their drug was safe and effective,” Orleck said.

Orleck added that he’s not carrying water for the industry, but simply noted the way drug prices changed during his career.

“I’m not a fan of big pharma in any way. I believe as soon as they get the opportunity they’ll even probably try to capitalize on cannabis as best they can, just because they can,” he said. “It’s all about money.”

He added that with the technology that’s available today, the threat of counterfeit drugs being imported into the country are real and could potentially threaten public health.

“If you just keep government out of the picture — and if there are rules and regulations that are hindering the way different companies can compete in the market, and that would include even purchasing from Canada — I would think it’d be a whole lot better off,” Orleck said. “When free enterprise is allowed to work in its purest form and there’s competition, that keeps the prices low.”

Briana Bocelli is a freelance reporter for True North Reports.

Images courtesy of Flickr/David Goehring and U.S. Food and Drug Administration

2 thoughts on “Local critics warn drug importation from Canada dangerous, destined for rejection by feds

  1. Re: “Reimporting drugs, they say, opens a door for unsafe counterfeits, undermines domestic drug sales and will force U.S. drug makers to raise prices to cover billion-dollar research and development costs.”

    As with health insurance in general, the premiums paid by the affluent and healthy among us subsidize (and some say incentivize) the disproportionately lower premiums and higher costs to treat those less fortunate. But why should American payers subsidize the low costs drug makers charge to clients in Canada, and other countries, that allow them to provide the same drugs at lower costs?

    Regarding safety, why do we presuppose drugs from Canada are any more prone to being unsafe or counterfeit than drugs purchased here? If there’s a regulatory metric in play, assign it to the Canadian suppliers too. And if there are actual damages, judicial redress of resulting grievances should also be bilateral.

    In the final analysis, expanding the market makes it more efficient. Conversely, shrinking the market has the opposite effect.

  2. The time when prices were reasonable and drug companies were sensitive to raising them was preceded by and continued even for a time after wage-price control attempts were made in the early 1970s to control an overall high inflation rate. As an aside, drug prices then were low and there were very few price increases and they only happened when the drug companies experienced increases in the cost of raw ingredients. It didn’t take long before most realized that such controls were counter-productive and that is the context of what I was saying about businesses and the drug industry being “a lot smarter than government…” They realized they could take the prices to the ceiling and when relaxed they could do it again. Their attitude changed from trying to keep prices as low as possible to finding ways to maximize them to the limit. Government taught them to think this way.

    I do believe that at a time, those in the pharmaceutical industry were more focused on what was good for people more so than what was good for their bottom line, although they always were able to have a good profit picture. Drugs then were a very small part of overall healthcare expenses. It is after government got involved in trying to price things that things got out of control and that continues to this day. Now drug prices are so high that they are unaffordable. It is shocking to see the prices that exist now. Thirty years ago, I thought they could not go higher. How wrong I was. Greed is now a big factor. It is now all about money or almost always. Government enabled that!

    I had not given much thought to the idea of re-importing prescription medications beyond the dangers this might create considering the counterfeiting of drugs out there. I had always thought of it as stupid and a political gimmick to make headlines and it would never happen. That’s about as much thought that I had given the subject. I was surprised that Governor Scott signed the law, but he has been recently doing a lot of things that are contrary to the best interests of Vermonters. The examples of that are his signature on legalization of marijuana and the gun bills he signed. The pot bill will harm Vermont in ways most cannot imagine. A glimpse of that harm can be seen in the recent “Morning” report from Colorado on the drug cartels and harm being caused there. https://www.today.com/video/inside-a-raid-on-a-cuban-drug-den-in-colorado-1243696707528 The gun laws he signed, supposedly his reaction to school safety, will do nothing to make schools safe.

    When speaking of allowing the market to find its way, I meant that, but I do see the legitimate role of government in regulating the safety and efficacy of drugs. Clearly that is the proper role of government to protect the people from harm. The police powers are important. Government has gone far beyond helping and in most cases harms the general public by their intrusion into our private lives and ability to be innovative. If people wish to buy drugs from Canada, they can travel there or engage in mail order purchases from pharmacies there, if that is legal. Been out of it too long to know for sure. But for the State to permit re-importation of drugs to be dispensed in pharmacies is so dangerous that no other state has tried it and the federal government has been smart enough, at least so far, to prevent it. Not so for Governor Scott and our legislature. When will they learn? I will not be filling any prescriptions for my family in our state if this law is allowed by the federal government to proceed.

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