Standing between cost-weary American drug consumers and their chance to access cheap prescriptions is about as perilous as standing in front of a running bull in Pamplona, or a rutting bull moose in British Columbia.
Washington’s two U.S. senators placed themselves on the business end of some sharp horns this month. Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell voted to defeat a budget amendment that aimed to make it easier — and legal — to import inexpensive pharmaceuticals from Canada.
As evidence of the idea’s broad appeal, consider the 46 senators who voted in support, an unusual alliance that included Independent Bernie Sanders and Republicans Ted Cruz and John McCain. Murray and Cantwell joined 11 other renegades from their party to vote no.
Their explanation sounds fairly rational, as far as it goes: They want a guarantee that medications flowing south from Canada will meet our country’s stricter safety standards.
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“I strongly support allowing patients to re-import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, as well as other steps to bring relief to the many families struggling to make ends meet right now,” Murray said in a Facebook post Jan. 13, two days after her unpopular vote. “ I’m committed to working with Senator Sanders and others to get this done in a way that maintains the safety assurances families depend on — and I’ll keep you all updated on our progress.”
Such words might ring hollow if you’re a low-income mom paying $620 for an EpiPen to treat her child’s life-threatening allergies — a device that costs $290 north of the border.
Yes, Murray and Cantwell are waging a larger battle: to preserve the Affordable Care Act against strong Republican headwinds. But with regard to prescription drugs, they should go beyond vague statements and outline what they’ll do to balance affordability and quality.
Patience is wearing understandably thin. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year found 77 percent of Americans believe drug prices are unreasonable, up from 72 percent in 2015.
The amendment vote was nonbinding and largely symbolic. But the explosive reaction on Murray’s Facebook page underscores how pharmaceutical company price-gouging has tapped a deep well of disgust, and people are sick of waiting for solutions.
Cheap prescription drugs from Canada have seduced U.S. health care consumers for years, now more than ever. Why would anyone want to shell out $2,626 for a three-month supply of anti-depressants when they can buy them across the border for $436?
Thousands of folks have turned to online Canadian pharmacies as an alternative. Puget Sounders have the option of taking a three-hour drive north, a personal RX express unavailable to those living at lower latitudes.
Technically, it’s illegal for Americans to buy medicines in Canada under U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules, just as it to buy cannabis in Washington under Drug Enforcement Administration rules. But FDA officials regard mom-and-pop medical purchases with a wink, like DEA officials do with small-scale marijuana transactions.
The office of Washington state’s Insurance Commissioner even publishes a booklet saying the FDA won’t object to personal import of prescription drugs as long as it’s for the patient’s own use and doesn’t exceed a three-month supply.
A system built on bending rules to bypass extortionate prices is a system that fails its people, most especially fixed-income seniors and other vulnerable patients. It’s a system that should shame our elected leaders into action.
Federal lawmakers have long explored ways to exploit Canada’s prescription drug market for the benefit of more constituents back home. But they have nothing to show for it after years of stalled legislation and Big Pharma obstruction.
A bipartisan proposal in 2009 was stripped from a final funding bill. Two years later, a similar re-importation plan was undone after 14 Democrats, including Cantwell, switched sides.
Ultimately, the Canadian import that could prove most beneficial to the U.S. is not the drugs themselves; it is Canada’s model of government-negotiated drug pricing.
Under our reckless status quo, federal health officials project spending on prescriptions will climb an average of 7.3 percent annually through 2018, when total total U.S. drug spending will reach $535 billion.
By bargaining directly with drug companies, the U.S. could use its leverage to drive down costs, particularly in the Medicare system. On this point, our newly inaugurated president speaks good sense, though in his typically brash and scattershot manner.
“Pharma has a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power, and there is very little bidding,” Donald Trump said at a recent press conference. “We’re the largest buyer of drugs in the world, and yet we don’t bid properly, and we’re going to save billions of dollars.”
For now, we’d settle for saving millions through legislation allowing pharmacies, wholesalers and individual patients to import safe prescription drugs from Canada.
Congress needs to bring a dose of economic sanity to citizens’ medicine cabinets in 2017, and Washington state senators ought to show support and leadership.