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U.S. plans to allow importing prescription drugs from Canada

Canada's health minister says the federal government is in touch with U.S. officials to discuss the Trump administration's plan to allow imports of cheaper prescription drugs from north of the border.

Some experts skeptical whether Canadian suppliers can satisfy larger U.S. market

The Trump administration's proposal would allow states, wholesalers and pharmacists to get FDA approval to import certain medications from Canada that are also available in the U.S. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada's health minister says the federal government is in touch with U.S. officials to discuss the Trump administration's plan to allow imports of cheaper prescription drugs from north of the border.

In a statement, officials for Ginette Petitpas Taylor are describing the latest display of American interest in Canadian medication as further evidence of Canada's commitment to more affordable prescription drugs.

The statement says Ottawa is constantly monitoring the Canadian drug supply, and will work closely with health experts to better understand the implications for Canadians and avoid any adverse effects on supply or drug costs.

"We're in touch with U.S. officials and look forward to discussing today's announcement with them," the statement said.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday it will set up a system to allow Americans to legally import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, weakening a longstanding ban that had stood as a top priority for the politically powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar made the announcement Wednesday morning. Previous administrations had sided with the industry on importation, echoing its concerns that it could expose patients to risks from counterfeit or substandard medications.

Azar, a former drug industry executive, said U.S. patients will be able to import medications safely and effectively, with oversight from the Food and Drug Administration. The administration's proposal would allow states, wholesalers and pharmacists to get FDA approval to import certain medications that are also available in the U.S.

It's unclear how soon consumers will see results.

Most patients take affordable generic drugs to manage conditions such as high blood pressure or elevated blood sugars. But polls show concern about the prices of breakthrough medications for intractable illnesses like cancer or hepatitis C infection, which have costs that can run to $100,000 US or more. And long-available drugs like insulin have also seen price increases that have forced some people with diabetes to ration their own doses.

"For too long, American patients have been paying exorbitantly high prices for prescription drugs that are made available to other countries at lower prices," Azar said in a statement that credited Trump for pushing the idea.

Concern over this type of move has prompted more than a dozen organizations to urge the Canadian government to safeguard Canada's drug supply.

In a letter issued last week, 15 groups representing patients, health professionals, hospitals and pharmacists warned the federal health minister of the potential for increasing drug shortages.

Canadian pharmacists sound the alarm

The Canadian Pharmacists Association was one of the signatories to that letter, and spokesperson Joelle Walker says her organization has expressed concerns "for a number of months, and even years," about the potential for importation of medications into the U.S., "because our market size is not equipped to supply another market that's 10 times our size.

"We already know that Canadians suffer from serious drug supply issues and shortages," Walker told CBC News in response to Wednesday's announcement. "One in four Canadians report [in a national survey conducted last November] that they have experienced a drug shortage, either personally or a family member, and pharmacists from across the country are saying that shortages have vastly increased in the last three to five years, so our supply chain is already not consistent in Canada.

"This has the potential to really put a lot of pressure on the availability of medications in Canada," whether through wholesale imports or individual purchases, said Walker.

Walker said the Canadian government should be pro-active in coming up with a plan to respond to the development.

"Our concern is that this is moving really quickly in the United States," she said, adding Canada should consider restricting the expanded importation of medication from the U.S. "before things pass in the United States and we're no longer in a position to control it as easily."

Senate bill would cap costs

The Trump administration's move comes as the industry is facing a crescendo of consumer complaints over prices, as well as legislation from both parties in Congress to rein in costs.

Trump is supporting a Senate bill to cap medication costs for Medicare recipients and require drugmakers to pay rebates to the program if price hikes exceed inflation.

Democrats in the House are pressing for a vote on a bill allowing Medicare to directly negotiate prices on behalf of millions of seniors enrolled in its prescription drug plan.

Separately, the Trump administration is pursuing a regulation that would tie what Medicare pays for drugs administered in doctors' offices to lower international prices.

The importation idea won praise from a key lawmaker, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is chairman of the panel that oversees Medicare.

Grassley said on Twitter that importation would lower prescription drug costs, and all drugs from abroad must be verified as safe by the FDA. He and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have a bill to facilitate importation.

Eyeing his reelection campaign, Trump has made lowering prescription drug prices one of his top goals. As a candidate, he called for allowing Americans to import prescription drugs, and recently he's backed a Florida law allowing state residents to gain access to medications from Canada.

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, called for allowing Americans to import prescription drugs as a candidate and recently backed a Florida law allowing state residents to gain access to medications from Canada. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Drug prices are lower in other economically advanced countries because governments take a leading role in setting prices. But in the U.S., Medicare is not permitted to negotiate with drug companies.

Some experts have been skeptical of allowing imports from Canada, partly from concerns about whether Canadian suppliers have the capacity to meet the demands of the much larger U.S. market.

But consumer groups have strongly backed the idea, arguing that it will pressure U.S. drugmakers to reduce their prices. They also point out that the pharmaceutical industry is a global business and many of the ingredients in medications sold in the U.S. are manufactured abroad.

AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, had pushed hard for the Florida plan, saying it's possible to safely import lower-priced, equally effective drugs and it would promote worldwide price competition.

The drug industry lobby, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has successfully blocked past efforts in Washington to allow importation. It argues that patients would be at risk of receiving counterfeit or adulterated medications.

With files from CBC News and The Canadian Press

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