Skip to main content

Drug Importation 'Just a Gimmick,' Says HHS Secretary

News  |  By Steven Porter  
   May 14, 2018

The former pharma exec said the U.S. should steer clear of an 'open borders' policy for unsafe foreign drugs.

The prospect of reducing prescription drug prices by importing cheaper supply from Canada is "just a gimmick," Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Monday morning.

The comment came during a speech at the Hubert H. Humphrey building in Washington, D.C., following up on President Donald Trump's speech Friday outlining the administration's general plan to promote affordability.

'Eliminating the Middlemen': Trump Takes Aim at PBMs in Drug Pricing Speech

The relative size of Canada's drug market is the main reason why drug importation isn't part of the U.S. plan, Azar said.

"They're a lovely neighbor to the north, but they're a small one," he added.

  • Analysis by the Congressional Budget Office determined that permitting drug importation would have "no meaningful effect" on U.S. prescription drug prices, Azar said. In 2004, after evaluating the proposals under consideration at the time, CBO concluded that importing Canadian drugs "would produce a negligible reduction in drug spending."
  • When the CBO analyzed a bill introduced last year by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to authorize the importation of certain prescription drugs from Canada (and later from countries in the Organizations for Economic Co-operation and Development), the CBO preliminarily estimated it would save taxpayers $6.8 billion over 10 years.
  • Azar's speech comes less than a week after state lawmakers in Vermont voted to legalize the importation of Canadian drugs. Gov. Philip Scott, a Republican, reportedly said he would study the bill before deciding whether to sign it into law. The measure could set the stage for a legal conflict between the state and federal government.
  • Citing four prior Food and Drug Administration commissioners, Azar said there's no way to guarantee that drugs purportedly coming to the U.S. from Canada or Europe originated where their distributors claim, raising safety concerns. The last thing we need, Azar said, is "open borders" for unsafe drugs.

Azar's speech reiterated the administration's four reform strategies on drug prices: improving competition, reducing out-of-pocket costs for patients, enhancing negotiations for government payers, and fashioning incentives to lower list prices.  

Live: @SecAzar delivers remarks on the HHS plan to lower prescription drug costs. Check out the American Patients First Blueprint on #DrugPricing — (@HHSGov) May 14, 2018

Steven Porter is an associate content manager and Strategy editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

Get the latest on healthcare leadership in your inbox.