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The Perennial Political Poppycock of Drug Importation

2017-01-05 | Peter Pitts
A new president, a new Congress with a new agenda, lots of new ideas -- and then there’s drug importation. This regularly resurrected bad idea is likely to be tagged onto the budget resolution. This perennial populist poppycock is an ill-considered sound-bite solution to drug pricing that won’t offer lower prices but will result in a public health calamity. The truth does not cease to be the truth because it isn't politically expedient.

Importing drugs from Canada is exceedingly dangerous for a number of reasons. For starters, many Internet pharmacies based up north are stocked with drugs from the European Union. And while many people wouldn’t hesitate to take medicines purchased from countries like France, Germany and Great Britain, there’s plenty of risk involved.

The EU currently operates under a system of “parallel trade,” which allows products to be freely imported between member countries. This means that any drugs exported from the United Kingdom to Canada could have originated in an EU country with significantly less rigorous safety regulations, like Greece, Portugal, Latvia or Malta.

Just last year, EU officials seized more than 34 million fake pills in just two months. And in May, Irish drug enforcers confiscated over 1.7 million pounds of counterfeit and illegal drug packages. So if American customers start buying drugs over the internet from Canadian pharmacies, they could easily wind up with tainted medicines of unknown European origin.

It’s also important to note that drugs from anywhere in Europe aren’t even legal for sale in Canada. So when politicians say we can get “the same drugs” that Canadians get, they’re just plain wrong.

Even more worrisome is outright fraud — many “Canadian” pharmacies are actually headquartered somewhere else. Far too often, importing drugs of unknown quality from sketchy pharmacy websites ends in tragedy. Consider the case of one Texas emergency-room doctor, who suffered a stroke after importing what he thought was a popular weight-loss drug. The online pharmacy had actually substituted the doctor’s ordered drug for a counterfeit, stroke-inducing medication shipped in from China. If medical professionals can’t tell the difference between real and counterfeit drugs, regular patients don’t stand a chance.

A 2005 investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looked at 4,000 drug shipments coming into the United States. Almost half of them claimed to be from Canada. Of those, fully 85 percent were actually from countries such as India, Vanuatu and Costa Rica.

As part of another investigation, FDA officials bought three popular drugs from two internet pharmacies claiming to be “located in, and operated out of, Canada.” Both websites had Canadian flags on their websites. Yet neither the pharmacies nor the drugs were actually from Canada.

The on-the-ground reality of state and local importation schemes has been dismal and politically embarrassing. Remember Illinois’ high profile “I-Save-RX” program? During 19 months, only 3,689 Illinois residents used the program — that’s .02 percent of the population.

Programs like this wouldn’t do any better on a national basis. A study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office showed that importation would reduce our nation’s spending on prescription medicines a whopping 0.1 percent — and that’s not including the tens of millions of dollars the FDA would need to oversee drug safety for the dozen or so nations generally involved in foreign drug importation schemes. And generic drugs (which represent more than 85 percent of the medicines dispensed in the U.S.) are cheaper here at home than in Canada.

Calling foreign drug importation “re-importation” is a clever way to sell the idea to the American people. But the term simply doesn’t fit with the facts. In reality, in addition to importing foreign price controls, Americans would end up jeopardizing their health by purchasing unsafe drugs while not saving money.

A better policy for our new President and Congress to focus on is the issue of increasing insurance company co-pays. American patients who head up north or online are motivated by the cut-rate prices they see on the web. Health insurers could help patients avoid this temptation by reducing their co-pays for drug purchases, particularly for low-income patients.

Dropping drug co-pays would also help patients stick to their prescribed treatment regimes. All too often, people skip a dose, don’t get a refill, or stop taking their drugs prematurely in order to save money. In the long run, though, not adhering to a drug regimen leaves patients less healthy — and increases national medical expenses by an estimated $300 billion annually.

When consumers say, “My drugs are too expensive,” what they mean is that their co-pays and co-insurance are too expensive. And they’re right. Major insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers (PBM) receive significant discounts from the manufacturers. So why doesn’t this result in lower co-pays for consumers? That’s a good issue for our new political leadership to debate.