When Maine passed a law in 2013 allowing residents to buy prescription medication by mail from other countries, the state essentially sanctioned a quest for cheaper drugs that has driven Mainers across the border to Canada for decades.
But the controversial law, the first of its kind in the nation, lasted only a couple of years. A federal judge struck it down in February 2015, ruling that Maine had infringed on the federal government’s authority to regulate foreign commerce.
Under federal law, importing drugs into the U.S. from other countries is illegal. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, rarely enforces the ban among individual consumers.
Now, with medication prices soaring to record highs and President Donald Trump promising to rein in costs, the federal law is back in the crosshairs. A group of U.S. senators and representatives led by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and including Maine Sen. Angus King, on Tuesday turned up the pressure on Trump. They introduced a bill that would allow the importation of prescription drugs from Canadian pharmacies, provided that the medications meet certain safety standards.
The legislation would require foreign drug sellers to register with the FDA. Patients would have to present a valid prescription and could receive up to a 90-day supply. The bill also would give the FDA the authority to shut down “bad actors,” including rogue online pharmacies, Saunders said at a media event announcing the bill.
Controlled drugs, including narcotic painkillers, could not be imported under the legislation.
King described the bill as “deregulation” of the pharmaceutical industry that would open the market to greater competition.
“My principal foreign policy credential is ‘I can see Canada from Maine,’” he quipped.
In the wake of news about skyrocketing prices for epinephrine injections and other prescription drugs, 71 percent of Americans across the political spectrum said they favored allowing the importation of drugs from Canada, according to a September 2016 Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
Canada, among other countries, can sell prescription drugs less expensively because its government caps prices on many prescription drugs.
Canada doesn’t enjoy the cheapest drug prices worldwide, but they’re significantly lower than what the U.S. pays. Americans spent $1,112 per person on prescription drugs in 2014, while Canadians spent $772, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Debate over the drug importation bill will likely echo the controversy over Maine’s law, with supporters arguing that drugs from Canada are safe and that consumers have been victimized by American pharmacies and drug makers charging exorbitantly high prices.
Opponents, including the drug lobby and pharmacy groups, argue that drug importation could expose consumers to contaminated or phony medications, and point out that most Americans take generic drugs, which are less prone to big price swings than expensive patented medications.
The Maine Pharmacy Association was among nearly 170 groups that signed a letter Tuesday opposing Sanders’ bill.
The legislation also stipulates that after two years, the federal government could permit importation of medications from additional countries where standards for the approval and sale of prescription drugs are comparable to those in the United States.