Sally C. Pipes
Congress is poised to consider a bill that would allow Americans to import prescription drugs from Canada. The bill’s authors — Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) — label their effort as a bipartisan push to “help Americans who struggle to pay exorbitant prices for medication.”
It’s noble of lawmakers to tackle prescription drug costs. Eight in ten Americans are concerned about the price of medicines, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
But the Grassley-Klobuchar bill isn’t the right solution. While it might deliver some minor financial relief, it’ll jeopardize the health and wellbeing of millions of Americans.
On cost, the Grassley-Klobuchar would yield negligible savings at best. If the entire nation legalized drug importation, number crunchers at the Department of Health and Human Services predict that American drug spending would decrease by less than 1 percent.
On safety, the bill exposes Americans to dangerous counterfeits. It’s estimated that 1 million people die at the hand of counterfeit drugs every year, many of which come from Canada.
Last year, U.S. prosecutors fined Canada’s largest online pharmacy $34 million for selling counterfeit medications to unsuspecting Americans. The company earned a $78 million profit by deceiving vulnerable cancer patients. Two widely sold oncology drugs — Avastin and Altuzan — contained zero active pharmaceutical ingredients.
Exacerbating safety concerns is the fact that a startling number of the “Canadian” drugs purchased by Americans aren’t actually from Canada.
An FDA operation conducted at three major U.S. airports examining suspected pharmaceutical shipments from India, Israel, Costa Rica, and Vanuatu revealed that nearly half were ordered from “Canadian” pharmacies — and of those, just 15 percent actually originated in Canada. The rest came from one of 27 countries across the world, including India, Turkey, and Iran.
The FDA warns Americans that it cannot ensure the safety of medicines “bought over the Internet from foreign sources, from storefront businesses that offer to buy foreign medicine for you, or during trips outside the United States.”
Neither, for that matter, can our northern neighbor. Canadian authorities have repeatedly stated that they’re not responsible for regulating the safety, quality, or efficacy of medicines sold to U.S. citizens.
Americans should not take the U.S. regulatory system for granted. Before obtaining FDA approval, new drugs must undergo a rigorous testing process. It takes approximately ten years, hundreds of pre-clinical treatments, and multiple clinical trials to bring just one product to the market.
Unfortunately, the same FDA oversight doesn’t apply to foreign pharmacies. And the Grassley-Klobuchar bill fails to acknowledge the dangers of importation.
Lawmakers are right to worry about how much patients spend at the pharmacy. But drug importation is not the right way to lower costs. Congress needs to go back to the drawing board. Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is The False Promise of Single-Payer Health Care (Encounter 2018). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.