The Cure for Prescription Prices: Importing Meds from Other Countries?

Domestic prescription drugs can cost a pretty penny. There is now talk of importing drugs from other countries into the U.S. Temporarily bringing cheaper drugs to the U.S. market could lower the costs. Importation supporters worry that it’s just lip service and won’t be enough. 

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As we well know from previous reports, fluctuating drug prices can cost patients a chunk of change. Kaiser Health News reports that it came as something of a surprise when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced that the administration was exploring the importation of prescription drugs to fight high domestic prices. Azar and Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, who also endorsed the new proposal, had previously opposed the idea.

KHN shares:

“Drug prices in the U.S. have continued to rise and more than 80 percent of Americans say the government should take action. President Donald Trump has said drugmakers are ‘getting away with murder’ and has angrily tweeted at companies about individual price hikes.

Although the candidate Trump supported the idea of allowing patients to import medicines, since he was elected he has not mentioned that option — which is strongly opposed by drug companies.

Now, determined to explore more avenues to curb price hikes, the administration is signaling that it is willing to consider what the industry regards as something of a nuclear option to address a recalcitrant problem. Carefully tailored to focus solely on specific situations where a high-priced drug is made by one company, it is finding support where broader proposals have failed.”

Kaiser Health News notes that this will not be for all medication. Only certain prescription drugs will be affected. The memo cited the infamous “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli as a reason for bringing in imports.

“Far from a blanket legalization of imported medicines, the working group Azar convened will study importation to combat sudden price increases in specific drugs. The focus is on temporarily bringing in cheaper similar or identical drugs to introduce competition into the U.S. market. The medicines must be off-patent and have only one manufacturer here.

Azar’s memo said the effort is designed to avoid the kind of overnight increases seen with Daraprim in 2015. That price hike was engineered by ‘pharma bro’ Martin Shkreli, then CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. He purchased the rights to the single-sourced medication that treats parasitic infections and began charging $750 for a pill that formerly cost $13.50 and costs a little more than a dollar in much of the world. Turing was the only U.S. producer.”

Critics are concerned that this idea is simply a way to look like action is being taken, rather than addressing the myriad concerns of drug pricing.

“Those who support more sweeping importation policies decried the plan’s limited scope and suspected the announcement was part theatrics and part a threatening signal to drugmakers.

‘This could just be a dog-and-pony show, where they’re calling in an expert group to explore avenues of importation — but when all is said and done, they find that they don’t want to do this,’ said Gabriel Levitt, the co-founder of PharmacyChecker.com, a private company that verifies international online pharmacies and compares prescription drug prices for consumers.

‘At that point, we’ll learn that the exercise was lip service,’ he added. ‘Frankly, there’s a good chance that that is the case.’”

If this idea can gain traction, it may lead to opening the market to other medications. And while it won’t solve all the problems, it could be a life-saving option for some Americans.

“Even if the policy targets just a slice of the overall problem, it could still make a difference for Americans struggling to pay for off-patent drugs and provide more competition.

‘If Azar is serious about this proposal, even though it’s very limited in scope, it could help deter the most egregious forms of drug price gouging where there are single-source meds,’ Levitt said.”

For more on this story, visit Kaiser Health News.

Do you think importing some drugs will lower costs, or is this just an idea that will go nowhere? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page.

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