NEW YORK This battle was supposed to be over by now.
The renewed drive by some members of Congress — with the apparent blessing of the Obama administration — to reopen the drive for legal re-importation of prescription drugs may come as a surprise to community pharmacy leaders. Many may have assumed the re-importation drive was all but dead in the water after earlier efforts to legislate an open supply spigot with Canada and other nations failed amid patient-safety concerns, opposition from Canadian health officials and the rise of such low-cost prescription alternatives in the U.S. as Wal-Mart’s $4 commoditization of generic drug prices.
Those pharmacy advocates were wrong. Despite opposition from the Food and Drug Administration, community pharmacy and patient-safety advocates, some lawmakers still harbor the misguided belief that the answer to the nation’s high drug prices is to let Internet and brick-and-mortar pharmacies — and cash-strapped seniors themselves — buy lower-priced drugs directly from across the border, Europe or other suppliers that pay far less for prescription medications for their own populations.
Congressional lawmakers aren’t alone in that belief. Obama administration officials including Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have come out in support of drug re-importation as a cost-effective alternative for Americans hit hard by drug prices, provided those re-imported drugs come from countries with well-established drug-safety and review procedures. Indeed, when she was governor of Kansas, Sebelius pushed a program to allow state residents to purchase drugs from some approved pharmacies in Canada and Europe.
The urge among policymakers to help seniors unable to afford some high-ticket but critical medications is understandable and commendable. But as pharmacy leaders have long pointed out, assuring the complete safety of a drug-supply chain that originates beyond our borders or from Internet pharmacies is all but impossible. Trying to turn Canada’s limited drug supply into America’s backup medicine cabinet won’t solve the problem of high drug costs.
Many pharmaceutical companies now offer their own discounts — some of which are substantial — to seniors who can’t afford to pay full price or full co-pays for branded drugs. And it goes without saying that pharmaceutical therapy is still the most cost-effective form of treatment for chronic conditions.
The long-term solution will have to involve the nation’s massive health reform and a more comprehensive, integrated approach to keeping Americans healthy, covered for catastrophic health costs and out of hospitals. And, as pointed out by NACDS president and CEO Steven Anderson, other solutions to high health costs already exist — including the massive potential for improved patient outcomes through more direct pharmacist intervention with patients, and improving generic drug utilization rates through better incentives for dispensing me-too meds.