Importing Prescription Drugs Will Create More Problems than it Solves

Several years ago, there was a significant push in Congress to allow wholesale importation of prescription drugs from other countries into the United States.  The Healthcare Leadership Council found itself in an opportune position to examine this idea, given that our membership includes not only pharmaceutical manufacturers and healthcare payers, but also the companies that would facilitate the distribution of these imported products.

We found that the promised cost savings from importation were an illusion.  When shipping, relabeling, storage, liability coverage and other costs were factored into the mix, the cost differential between medicines in this country and those from countries that employ government price controls was largely erased.  It has never been surprising that HHS Secretaries and FDA Commissioners from both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations over the years have attested that the risks connected with drug importation far exceeded any possible rewards.

But now the issue is back in a big way.  States – including Vermont, Colorado, and Florida – have passed legislation to set up their own drug importation programs, pending federal government approval, and the current administration has indicated a willingness to work with them in making this happen.  Also, Congress is once again considering importation legislation. This is troubling.

The only difference between the drug importation issue today and when we first examined it is that the dangers have exacerbated while the benefits have not.  There are certain facts that policymakers should keep in mind when contemplating the prospects of opening our borders to drugs from outside the U.S.

  • We already have a drug crisis in this country, much of it fueled by the proliferation of lethal fentanyl that is originating in other countries and finding its way here through our ports and via the international mail service.
  • The world is facing an enormous health challenge driven by the increase in counterfeit drugs. The World Health Organization has estimated that one in every 10 pharmaceutical products in low- and middle-income countries is falsified or substandard. Opening our borders increases our exposure to this danger.
  • Since we first examined this issue, there has been an explosion in the number of online pharmacies. According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, there are over 35,000 online drug sellers and 96 percent of them are in violation of applicable laws.  Many of these operations are based in Canada, the nation often cited as the safe place from which to import drugs.
  • And just to dispense with the notion that importing drugs from Canada will drastically lower prices, the numbers simply don’t work. Canada’s population is barely more than one-tenth that of the United States and our neighbors to the north have already been enduring problems with drug shortages.  The idea that Canada can provide a sufficient supply of prescription medications to meet American demands is ludicrous.

By all means, we should be having a national conversation on healthcare affordability and accessibility in the United States, seeking solutions that will ensure patients have access to the treatments they need while also maintaining an environment that incentivizes lifesaving medical innovation.  A serious discussion requires credible ideas, though, and drug importation doesn’t fit that bill.