With New Congress Comes Renewed Prescription Drug Importation Efforts at the State, National Levels

February 1, 2019

By: Libby Baney and Matthew Rubin, Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting

It did not take very long for members of both the US House of Representatives and Senate to introduce prescription drug importation-focused legislation when the 116th Congress began on January 3. Within one week, several bills were introduced that would permit the importation of prescription drugs from Canada for personal use. The issue of drug pricing remains high on the list of core issues for both Republicans and Democrats alike, including voters nationwide. Coupled with a Republican Senate, Democratic House, and the 2020 election already on the horizon, potential solutions for high drug prices will be floated and debated vigorously for the weeks and months to come.

Expanding on a recent announcement by US Food and Drug Administration noting the creation of an importation working group for sole-source, off-patent medications with limited availability, two versions of these bills were introduced mimicking legislative text that had been led by Democrats in prior sessions. Most notably, new Senate Finance Committee Chairman Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced bipartisan legislation. Chairman Grassley, in his role controlling the Finance Committee’s agenda and oversight of certain components of the health care delivery system, has noted that drug pricing (including importation) remains high on his agenda for the coming two-year legislative session.

  1. Safe and Affordable Drugs from Canada Act of 2019 (Senate Bill (SB) 61) – Introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley and Amy Klobuchar. A summary of the bill can be found here.
  2. Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act (SB 97House Rule 447) – Introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Democratic Representatives Elijah Cummings (MD), Ro Khanna (CA), Peter Welch (VT-At Large), and Joe Neguse (CO-2)A summary of the bill can be found here.

Focus on prescription drug importation, however, is not limited solely to federal legislators. In 2018, there were a total of nine states that introduced and debated potential legislation focused on a variation of prescription drug importation. Out of these states, Vermont was the sole legislature that was able to pass a bill. Stakeholders in Vermont – and in states across the country considering such policies – are now anxiously awaiting the review and potential approval of the program by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Legislators in West Virginia are not waiting in pushing forward, having already advanced a bill – House Bill 2319 – that would establish a prescription drug importation scheme from Canadian suppliers. The bill was approved, with amendment, within the House Committee on Health and Human Resources and has since been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. Four new Democratic governors from Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin have also noted their interest in pursuing such legislation, holding tight for the next steps for the Vermont bill to help in the development of their own policies. It is expected that additional states will follow suit and introduce legislation permitting either personal or wholesale importation.

As state and federal policymakers continue the dialogue around prescription drug importation without significant consideration of stakeholders’ public health and patient safety concerns, resources such as the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy’s .Pharmacy Program remain critical in ensuring patients, caregivers, and health care providers are afforded access to safe and legitimate sources of medication online. With all things indicating continued pressure to permit prescription drug importation, pharmacists and drug safety experts, amongst others, will be called upon to help educate about the risks associated with illegal online pharmacies and the dangers of an uneducated purchase.