DENVER (CBS4) - Colorado took the first steps this week toward implementing a prescription drug importation program.
"We're a pioneering state," said Kim Bimestefer, head of Colorado's Department of Health Care Policy and Financing. "We lead. We're not shy about being first into the gate and figuring this out. We want to bring the savings to Colorado."
Her department is in charge of creating the importation program. It announced this week it was soliciting bids from Canadian wholesalers to purchase drugs for the Colorado market as well as importers to package and distribute the drugs.
The state will also hire a company to handle administration of the program, including compliance monitoring. It hopes to have all three vendors in place by this fall.
Bimestefer says she has met with the Canadian consulate about the plan.
"We're confident that what we're putting together works within the guidelines established by Canada."
Bimestefer says Canada's drug shortages are in generics and the financial savings for Colorado are in brand name drugs. Her department compared the cost of 50 popular drugs in Colorado with the cost of the same drugs in Canada. It found Coloradans pay, on average, 63% more.
The Epi Pen, for example, costs 65% less in Canada. The Flovent inhaler is 87% cheaper and Synthroid, used to treat hypothyroidism, is 93% less in Canada. Bimestefer says the savings are even greater in France and Australia.
"Our consumers and employers are paying 20 times more the price than Australia is for the same thyroid medication. That's not okay. So, we want to take the same drugs, with the same FDA approval, and just bring them in through a different pathway that allows us to bring so much more savings."
The drug importation plan could also bring life-altering relief to those like Bonnie Arnold, who suffers from debilitating migraines that can last for months.
"I call them shotgun migraines because it feels like I got shot in the head with a shotgun. My entire side of my face will droop because it's like having a stroke."
After 10 years of suffering, she finally found a medication that relieves the pain, but it costs $600 a month.
"I wanted to cry and I wanted to yell at somebody."
The price of the same drug, she says, is hundreds of dollars less in Canada. Arnold, like many Coloradans, has looked into importing the drug herself.
Bimestefer says the state's plan would ensure the safety of the drugs while bringing down the cost. She says 40% of our medications are already being made in another country, and 80% of the ingredients come from outside the U.S. The only difference, she says, is we pay four times more for those drugs.
She says the goal is to hire a wholesaler, importer and compliance vendor by this fall and begin importing drugs from Canada, and possibly France and Australia, by 2023. Bimestefer says the draft proposal the state sent to the federal government - which will have final say - includes 167 drugs but, she says, the state hasn't finalized the list.
Every individual, employer and insurer would have access to the imported drugs.
Arnold says they can't come soon enough.
"To be able to have access to that medication and have it at the right dose I'm supposed to have it at, it would just be amazing."
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America shared a statement with CBS4 after the publication of this story:
The Polis Administration's decision to continue spending millions of dollars pursuing a program that threatens public health at the same time we are fighting a global pandemic is alarming. Despite claims by those who support this dangerous program, Coloradans are being subjected to the risks of an importation scheme without any guarantee that it will save them money. By moving forward with this misguided policy, the Polis Administration is putting the health and safety of Coloradans in jeopardy.
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