Florida Democrats wrong to resist importing prescription drugs from Canada

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board

Published April 26, 2019

Some said Medicare would destroy health care in America. But it didn’t.

Some said cigarettes don’t kill. But they do.

Now some say medicines from Canada aren’t safe. But they are.

Propagandists can be ingenious when there are obscene profits to protect.

A powerful lobbying effort opposes Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to import medicines from Canada to save money for the state and the public.

Nearly 100 lobbyists are at work on the Legislature and a media campaign is targeting you.

Surprisingly, a significant number of Democrats have been voting against the bill — the only legislative opponents so far.

The fear-and-smear campaign is coming from an organization called the Partnership for Safe Medicines. Once again, a high-sounding name conceals a low purpose: keeping the market safe for exorbitant drug prices.
The partnership’s 69 member groups are mostly pharmaceutical trade associations, including PhRMA, the industry’s big gun. The National Association of Manufacturers, that well-known protector of corporate profits, is also a member. The Wall Street Journal editorial board is also an ally, as is Scott Gottlieb, who spent his short tenure as FDA commissioner shilling for the drug and health care industry. A few legitimate public interest groups also have bought into Pharma’s campaign.

The group is fronting for the crowd that charges $1,700 for a diabetes drug that sells for $175 in the United Kingdom, as just one example.

Countries like Great Britain and Canada regulate the price of drugs. Ours doesn’t.

“The United States overall spends 30 to 190 percent more on prescription drugs than other developed countries and pays up to 174 percent more for the same prescription drug,” according to a legislative staff report.

Because of high prescription drug costs, some people are skipping doses, splitting pills or going without — with deadly results. Others are importing their drugs from Canada, despite a prohibition the FDA doesn’t enforce.

In fact, an estimated 19 million Americans already get their medicines by mail from Canada or Mexico. And here’s a statistic you won’t see in today’s scare campaign: Some 40 percent of drugs sold in the U.S. are manufactured elsewhere, mostly in India or China.

We applaud Gov. DeSantis’s push to let state agencies and private pharmacies import less expensive drugs from reputable and regulated suppliers in Canada and elsewhere. For as Medicare has shown, when government says yes, private insurers follow.

House Bill 19, by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, approaches the goal in two ways. It would allow Florida to import pharmaceuticals from Canada for state programs, such as Medicaid, health departments and the prison system. Pharmacists also could import medicines for private patients from Canada and certain other countries.

Only drugs approved by the FDA and sourced by licensed suppliers would be eligible. The providers also would have to comply with the product-tracking law that Congress enacted in 2013 to keep counterfeit and hijacked drugs out of the supply chain.

There is no evidence the change would flood Florida with unsafe drugs. Counterfeiting is a real issue, yes, but the only reported examples involve drugs sold in the United States. No one has yet produced ONE example of someone — anywhere in the U.S. — who was harmed by drugs imported from licensed and regulated sources in Canada.

Yet when the House passed HB 19 last week, 22 Democrats, almost half their caucus, cast the only votes against it. Democrats were also the only dissenters when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved it 14-4 on Thursday.

In both cases, the respective minority leaders — Kionne McGhee of Miami in the House and Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville in the Senate — were on the wrong side of this highly significant public health issue.
Could it be that Democrats don’t want to give the Republican governor a win — even if it’s a win for the people?

McGhee said in a statement that the bill is merely a “Band Aid,” not the “comprehensive solution” Floridians needs. Following up, a spokesperson told the Sun Sentinel editorial board that the bill doesn’t guarantee cost savings will be passed along to consumers. But Big Pharma obviously fears they will be.

When you can’t defeat something on the merits, a classic legislative ploy is to say it’s not good enough.

In the real world, a “comprehensive solution” to the staggering cost of health care is not within the Florida Legislature’s reach. But an incremental reform, such as HB 19, certainly is. And its enactment would be a significant step forward, which is why Big Pharma dreads it so.

“If you go around the country, this deal has a lot of Democratic support,” says Leek, who finds it strange — as do we — that in Florida, some of the Democrats are “a mouthpiece for Pharma.”

Reached late Friday, Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Pompano Beach, said he agrees “the governor’s position is the position of the people, but the implementation of that position is certainly our responsibility.”

Thurston raises concerns about imported drugs being made available only to “vulnerable communities” in government programs, about the federal government having not approved importation, about imports from countries besides Canada, about Canada’s ability to handle the volume, about cost projections and about the House bill being advanced without appropriate hearings.

“I think the bottom line is, it was half-baked,” he said. “We want more answers. We’re not saying it’s a bad idea.”

Thurston said a lot can happen in the legislature’s final two weeks. He expects the bill's sponsors will work to address the Democrats’ concerns. He realizes this is a populist issue.

“The Thurston family would love to have some help with prescription costs, as well as my constituents in District 33,” he said. “We’re not fighting for Big Pharma, that’s for sure.”

If passed, the proposal would need approval from the federal government. The Department of Health and Human Services has had the necessary authority since 2003, but has dragged its feet. HHS Secretary Alex Azar has been openly scornful.

But it’s President Donald Trump who would be ultimately responsible. DeSantis, a Trump protégé, has claimed the president’s support for the idea.

Florida can and should send a message to Big Pharma and put President Trump to the test by passing the Canadian import plan. The governor spoke out in support again and is scheduled to speak Tuesday at a Tallahassee forum arranged by the AARP.

The purpose is to let older adults speak out about what Big Pharma is doing to them. That’s a message most of Florida’s legislators seem to be hearing. All of them need to.