The Mythology of Safe, Cheap Drugs from Canada

In January, the U.S. Senate rejected legislation, as it has multiple times in the past, which would have allowed the importation of prescription drugs from Canada.  Apparently believing that a bad idea can never have too much exposure, some senators are reportedly poised to bring drug importation up for another vote.  The evidence on this issue hasn’t changed and neither should the outcome.

Last month, the Congressional Research Service provided lawmakers with a report on the safety of the Canadian drug supply that should have put this issue to rest once and for all.  The report, compiled by a Senate committee in Canada, illustrated the differences between the rigorous drug safety infrastructure maintained here in the United States and the protocols in other countries which are, well, less extensive.  While both Canada and the U.S., for example, import ingredients used to manufacture prescription medications, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducts hundreds of inspections at foreign manufacturing facilities each year.  Canadian authorities conducted only 14 in 2013 and 2014.

This is of particular concern when drug counterfeiting is becoming a global crisis.  Putting a crack in our closed drug inspection-and-approval system with importation legislation will place American patients and consumers at unnecessary risk.

What Congress should keep in mind is that laws already exist to permit drug importation from Canada.  The Secretary of Health and Human Services has the authority to permit drug imports, under the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, if it can be certified that such action will generate substantial cost savings while protecting public safety.  No HHS Secretary in either Democratic or Republican administrations has ever made that certification.

There’s no doubt that drug importation is one of those crowd-pleasing issues that looks good on paper.  The reality is, though, that it offers very little, if any, gain for consumers while carrying a very high potential cost that is simply unacceptable.