Proposals to allow for the importing of prescription drugs from Canada are symbolic of the United States’ teetering health care system. Now that the plan has largely been scuttled by Canadian leaders, Congress should get serious about shoring up this country’s health care rather than relying on our neighbors.
In July, President Donald Trump issued an executive order pushing to allow for importations in an effort to reduce prescription drug prices for American consumers. In September, the Department of Health and Human Services approved rules providing for states to set up such programs, and several states have pursued the option.
This follows efforts in Congress to remove restrictions on importing prescription medications. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has introduced the Safe and Affordable Drugs from Canada Act in the House of Representatives, and last year wrote, “Many Washingtonians face significantly higher prescription drug prices here in the U.S. compared to Canada. This solution could save individuals and families thousands of dollars in medication costs every year.”
The problem, apparently, is that nobody bothered to ask the Canadians what they think. Last week, the Canadian health minister signed an order limiting bulk exports, saying it would help safeguard the country’s drug supply. “Our health care system is a symbol of our national identity and we are committed to defending it,” Minister of Health Patty Hajdu said. “The actions we are taking today will help protect Canadians’ access to the medication they rely on.”
Reducing the cost of prescription drugs is a worthy goal. A Health and Human Services study in late 2018 found prices in the U.S. for the most common medications typically are 1.8 times higher than in other countries. “U.S. prices were more likely to be the highest prices paid among the countries in our study,” reads the report.
Trump has made reducing prescription drug prices a major goal of his administration, to little effect. And President-elect Joe Biden also has supported the importing of medications.
But with increased attention to the issue, three pharmaceutical industry groups last week filed a court challenge to importation, saying the effort would not reduce prices and could allow for unsafe medications.
Indeed, the safety of the drugs must be a priority, but efforts to lower prices must continue. The Harvard Business Review this year recommended strategies for reducing costs: Link innovation regulations, such as tax credits for pharmaceutical research, to price concessions from manufacturers; revamp monopoly protections for new drugs; and remove obstacles to competition from generic versions of name brands.
Lowering the cost of prescription medications not only is a matter of Americans’ health and finances, it also is a matter of equity — particularly impacting minority and poor populations.
In 2019, the House passed the Lower Drug Costs Now Act (Herrera Beutler was one of two Republicans to vote in favor). That legislation would allow the Medicare system to directly negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, but it has languished in the Senate.
While there have been efforts from Congress and the White House to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, the entire episode speaks poorly of the U.S. health care system. While the pharmaceutical industry enjoys quickly growing profits, Americans are left looking toward Canada for assistance.