The Phoenix Flyer

Gov. DeSantis and Trump claim they’ll import cheaper Canadian prescription drugs to Florida

By: - February 22, 2019 1:44 pm

Pixabay photo.

Nobody likes the high cost of prescription drugs.

Gov. Ron DeSantis says he wants to do something about it. But it could be a big reach for the rookie Republican governor. He is trying to accomplish something that no other state has ever done.

In an announcement at the sprawling retirement community of The Villages in Central Florida, DeSantis outlined a plan to import lower-costing drugs from Canada, where the government negotiates the drug prices with the manufacturers. The idea is to provide cheaper drugs for government programs like Medicaid and for inmates, and then later to allow Canadian prescription drugs to be sold wholesale to pharmacies and insurance providers.

The proposal would require approval from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and no state has yet won that approval. U.S. drug manufacturers are opposed to it.

But DeSantis says he has a powerful ally in his corner: President Donald Trump. Trump’s endorsement was a major factor in DeSantis’s gubernatorial primary win last year.

“I want you know to know that I spoke personally to president Trump on both Sunday and Monday about this. He is not only supportive, he is enthusiastic,  and he wanted me to tell all of you here today that he supports what we’re doing. He will take the necessary executive actions to make sure that we can act,” DeSantis told a crowd of retirees.

Yet there have been mixed signals from Washington. In May, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called the drug-importation plan “a gimmick.”

“Many people may be familiar with proposals to give our seniors access to cheaper drugs by importing drugs from other countries, such as Canada. This, too, is a gimmick. It has been assessed multiple times by the Congressional Budget Office, and CBO has said it would have no meaningful effect,” Azar said, according to a text of his speech.

“One of the main reasons is that Canada’s drug market is simply too small to bring down prices here. They are a lovely neighbor to the north, but they’re a small one. Canada simply doesn’t have enough drugs to sell them to us for less money, and drug companies won’t sell Canada or Europe more just to have them imported here,” Azar said.

He also raised questions about guaranteeing that the imported drugs will meet U.S. safety standards.

But Azar’s position has evolved since then. In July, he asked the Food and Drug Administration to investigate how to safely import drugs. And in a speech last month, Azar said drug importation could be used to counter “some notorious cases” where drug manufacturers have dramatically hiked prices for off-patent drugs, according to the Morning Consult.

“That’s why we have FDA looking at how safe importation of drugs from abroad could help inject competition to address or prevent these price spikes, while not impairing intellectual property rights,” Azar said. “Where there is competition, we have to ensure that government rules aren’t getting in the way of private actors trying to harness it.”

Yet despite the shift in the Trump administration policy, the major drug manufacturers remain opposed to DeSantis’s plan and similar proposals being advanced in other states.

“While we haven’t seen a formal proposal from the governor, importation schemes are the wrong approach,” said Tiffany Haverly, a spokeswoman for the  Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

“The biopharmaceutical industry is committed to bringing forward solutions that address the real challenges patients are facing. And we welcome the opportunity to work with lawmakers in Florida on solutions that will help patients better afford their medicines. But proposals like this that brush patient safety aside are not the answer,” she said.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami-Dade County Republican, and Senate President Bill Galvano, a Manatee County Republican, both have said they are open to developing legislation that could bring down the price of prescription drugs.

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.