Debate on Drug Prices Renew Fight Over Personal Prescription Importation

As the debate over drug prices heats up, it has rekindled a discussion about the private importation of prescription drugs from other nations. Some politicians like Senator John McCain and Senator Chuck Grassley have advocated for importing drugs directly from international prescription referral services. While this would allow Americans to pay a lower price for their medication, the pharmaceutical industry is against such a practice. 

Debating the Benefits of Prescription Importation

According to the pharmaceutical companies, importing prescription drugs from international prescription referral services could mean that patients are taking unsafe or counterfeit drugs. Considering many countries have programs similar to the United States Food and Drug Administration, this allegation seems flawed at best. While pharmaceutical companies scramble for a reason to stop drug importation, a rising number of Americans support the idea. Among registered Republicans and Democrats, almost 75 percent of individuals said that Americans should be allowed to get their prescriptions from international prescription referral services.

Currently, the importation of drugs is minimally regulated. Patients typically get online to look up prescription drug sellers in other nations such as Canada, and these drugs arrive in the mail. In response to drug importation, the Food and Drug Administration has spent three years trying to end Internet pharmacies.

According to American laws, drugs can only be imported for personal use. This was done for humanitarian reasons and meant to help patients who needed medication that was not approved in the Untied States yet. Instead, many patients are turning to international prescription referral services for drugs that are already FDA-approved and readily available in the United States. Considering the drastic cost savings, it is unsurprising that anyone relying on daily medication or drugs for serious illnesses would look abroad for help.

The Changing Political Climate Around Drug Importation 

As baby boomers start to age, the cost of health care drastically increases. This large segment of the United States population has begun to receive their bills for health care, and the resulting outcry has been taken up by key politicians. In answer to the demand for cheaper drugs, key members of the Senate and the House of Representatives have advocated for easier drug importations. Over the past three years, several bills have been passed in the House. Unfortunately, these bills have not become law.

Within the last week, the Senator McCain and Senator Grassley have sent a joint letter to the Healthy and Human Services branch of the government. In the letter, they asked Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell to exert her power to allow patients to purchase expensive drugs at a cheaper price abroad. On a more local playing field, state governments have started to increase accessibility to drug imports. When Maine created a legal way for businesses to buy medicine and resell it in the United States, the move was challenged by PhRMA immediately. After being passed two years ago, the law was struck down in February because the state was not legally allowed to pass a law that violated federal laws.

Since Maine’s law was struck down, it means that American businesses are not currently able to buy imported drugs to sell in the United States. Individuals are still able to buy medication from abroad, but they must go through online international prescription referral services to do so.

As far back as 2008, President Obama spoke about his desire for Americans to be able to import medicines at lower prices than they could find in the United States. Congress also has a broad range of bipartisan support for prescription drug importation. Unfortunately, President Obama backed off his statement in order to garner favor from the pharmaceutical industry, and Congress lacks the number of votes necessary to pass a bill on the subject. Now, Democratic candidates Senator Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton vow to take up the fight. For the millions of Americans who require affordable medication, the renewed energy in this debate comes as a sign of hope.