The Trump administration says it will set up a system allowing Americans to legally access lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar made the announcement Wednesday morning.
Azar, a former drug industry executive, says U.S. patients will be able to import medications safely and effectively, with oversight from the Food and Drug Administration. States, drug wholesalers and pharmacists would act as intermediaries for consumers.
"President Trump has been clear: for too long American patients have been paying exorbitantly high prices for prescription drugs that are made available to other countries at lower prices," Azar said in a statement.
Azar added, "Today's announcement outlines the pathways the Administration intends to explore to allow safe importation of certain prescription drugs to lower prices and reduce out of pocket costs for American patients. This is the next important step in the Administration's work to end foreign freeloading and put American patients first."
The burden lies on the states, pharmacies and distributors to come up with a plan that follows federal safety guidelines and present it to the FDA, HHS Secretary Alex Azar told MSNBC on Wednesday.
On a background call with reporters ahead of that appearance, a senior administration official acknowledged there are operational challenges ahead and questions that need to be answered before these policies can be implemented. When that would happen is uncertain.
The administration's move comes as the industry is facing a litany of consumer complaints over drug prices, as well as legislation from both parties in Congress to rein in costs. As a result of skyrocketing costs, one in 10 Americans skip doses to save money, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Just this past week, 2020 contender Sen. Bernie Sanders, a staunch advocate for health care rights,to make a point just how startling the disparity in drug costs really is. Sanders, joined by 13 Americans with diabetes, made the trek across the border where vials for medically-necessary insulin costs around $30. In the U.S., the price is ten times that.
The HHS plan to allow the purchase and importation of prescription drugs from abroad, however, would eliminate a high priority campaign issue seized by progressive Democrats, including Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Public health groups like Partnership for Safe Medicines have blasted the plan as a short-term "gimmick" and a " regulatory surrender."
"Let us be clear: Political grandstanding doesn't create safety, and every time our leaders cut corners on regulatory safeguards for political expediency, Americans suffer," Shabbir Safdar, executive director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines said in a statement.
"The safety of America's drug supply is not a political game. Every HHS Secretary in modern history has refused to entertain the dangerous idea of allowing drug importation, despite careful consideration and intense pressure. Importation simply can't be implemented," Safdar added.
Acting Commissioner of Food and Drug Administration Dr. Ned Sharpless argued on a call with reporters, however, that "protecting patients is the highest priority of the FDA, and Americans can be confident that any efforts in this space will not sacrifice patient safety."
President Trump, meanwhile, is exploring other avenues in the meantime to lower the costs of drugs, including throwing his support behind a Senate bill to cap medication costs for Medicare recipients.