The rising cost of prescription drugs is on everyone's mind, and the issue is increasingly being scrutinized by the executive and legislative branches inside the Beltway. Even President Donald J. Trump has raised the issue over prescription drugs costs — though it typically ins't a signature Republican issue — and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has recently introduced legislation to allow drug importation. The debate over drug importation is a complex one, often muddled by talking points by both sides.
Here is how the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) defines drug importation:
"Drug re-importation refers to the practice of importing back to the United States prescription drugs that were originally manufactured in the U.S. and exported for sale in another country. Most often, Americans re-import drugs for personal use by filling their prescriptions in Canadian or Mexican pharmacies, either in person, or through mail-order or Internet pharmacies."1Proponents of the drug importation cite the need for consumers to access less expensive prescriptions drugs. According to a relatively recent national survey commissioned by Gallup, "27% of Americans name cost as top health problem."2
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) found that one in ten Americans cannot afford their prescription drugs. That same study found approximately 1.6% of consumers have bought prescription drugs from another country.
“There is no reason why drug importation should be a problem for the United States," said Eddie Hamilton of the ADAP Educational Initiative based in Ohio. "Generic Abacavir is already being imported into the U.S. from India for domestic patients by ADAPs without issue.”
|Photo Source: Huffington Post|
The Sanders legislation is only latest attempt by Congress to allow drug importation. It has also gained support from some colleagues — Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Bob Casey (D-PA) — in the Senate who had previously opposed drug importation legislation.
Though AARP hasn't yet endorsed the Sanders legislation (S.469), similar legislation did receive support from the organization. In 2009, AARP Senior Vice President David Sloane argued: “AARP is committed to helping our members and all older Americans have greater access to and reduced costs for the prescription drugs they need, including both through safe importation and other important measures such as closing the dreaded coverage gap in Medicare Part D known as the ‘doughnut hole.’"
Senator Sanders isn't alone in his fight over drug importation, because Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has also introduced similar legislation. The McCain legislation (S.92) has bipartisan support, unlike the Sanders legislation.
Opponents have equally strong arguments against drug importation. Among them, concern over drug safety, including counterfeit or black market drugs. In 2014, a new resource for the HIV/AIDS community and their doctors was made available by the Community Access National Network (CANN) and Partnership for Safe Medicines. The resource, "Black Market HIV Drugs in the News, 2006-2013," sought to increase awareness of the severe health risks posed by counterfeit or black market medicines.
Summarized Bill Arnold, CANN's President & CEO, who continues to have doubts about drug importation: "The importation or re-importation of medications from outlets other than those regulated by the FDA and other U.S. authorities is particularly dangerous for the HIV-positive patient. In the past, anti-retroviral drugs from this grey, or black, market system have turned up in many places. These drugs have turned out to be completely fake, improper potency, contaminated, and worse."
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), who also opposes drug importation, has been very local about pitfalls over the potential lack of drug safety. The issue is characterized as "unsafe and lead to potentially dangerous outcomes for patients."
PhRMA will host a policy briefing on the issue. The briefing, "Safety and the Supply Chain: Ensuring Prescription Medicines are Safe for Patients," will discuss the important role of the FDA in ensuring the safety of medicines from test tube to patient, the threat of counterfeit drugs to patient safety, the importance of the Drug Supply Chain Security Act and the implications of drug importation proposals. It is open to all interested stakeholders, but advance registration is required.
It appears that Senator Sanders anticipated the pushback over drug safety, because his legislation requires foreign sellers to register with the FDA, as well as other safety measures. The add-ons should alleviate some concerns, but not all of them.
The ADAP Advocacy Association has also traditionally opposed drug importation, but it remains open to dialogue on the issue. Like most public policy issues, there is no easy answer or solutions. To that end, drug importation will be part of the conversation during our 10th Annual Conference later this year.
To register for the 10th Annual Conference, go to our website.
 American Association of Retired Persons (AAPR), Prescription Drug Re-Importation Question and Answer Sheet, 2016; available online at http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/articles/international/ReimportationQA.pdf.
 Gallup, Cost Edges Access as Most Urgent U.S. Health Problem, December 7, 2016; available online at http://www.gallup.com/poll/199169/cost-edges-access-urgent-health-problem.aspx?g_source=prescription+drug+costs&g_medium=search&g_campaign=tiles.
 Renal & Urology News, Almost 1 in 10 Americans Can't Afford Medications Says CDC, February 4, 2015; available online at http://www.renalandurologynews.com/news/cdc-americans-can-not-afford-medications-eight-percent/article/395374/.
 American Association of Retired Persons (AAPR), AARP Response to Senate Block on Prescription Drug Importation Legislation, December 11, 2009; available online at http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-03-2010/aarp_response_tosenateblockonprescriptiondrugimportationlegislat.html.
 Partnership for Safe Medicines, Patient Advocates Warn of Dangers of Black Market HIV Medicines, May 21, 2014; available online at http://www.safemedicines.org/2014/05/patient-advocates-warn-of-dangers-of-black-market-hiv-medicines5-22-14.html.
 Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Fact Check Friday: The truth about drug importation and patient safety, February 24, 2017; available online at http://catalyst.phrma.org/fact-check-friday-the-truth-about-drug-importation-and-patient-safety.
 Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Safety and the Supply Chain: Ensuring Prescription Medicines are Safe for Patients, February 23, 2017.