February 8, 2020

Prescription drug importation bill passes Senate committee

Erin DeMay

Flickr / cc

Like many low-income seniors in New Mexico, Paul Gibson said, his mother-in-law struggles to pay for her prescription drugs.

“She’ll parse out her medications in ways that make no sense; that undermine her health all the time,” Gibson, co-founder of the advocacy group Retake Our Democracy, told state lawmakers Friday. “Seniors should not face those kinds of decisions.”

The state is taking steps to change that.

Following the Trump administration’s announcement in December of proposed federal rules that would allow states to import prescription medications from Canada, New Mexico lawmakers and health officials are pushing legislation to initiate the process of bringing in Canadian drugs.

Advocates say Senate Bill 1 would help lower patients’ prescription drug costs by expanding the pharmaceutical market to drugmakers outside the U.S., which has some of the highest consumer prices in the world.

“Nearly a quarter of all Americans report that they have difficulty affording their prescriptions,” Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, a sponsor of SB 1, told the House Health and Human Services Committee during a Friday hearing on the bill. “What is particularly frightening is that people who need their medications the most have the greatest difficultly paying for them.”

She said the state must do more to address the issue as the federal government is moving to open a new pathway toward lower-cost medications.

“One study found that patented, branded drugs cost on average three times more in the United States than in Canada,” Armstrong said.

Her measure, the Wholesale Prescription Drug Importation Act, would authorize the state Department of Health to apply for federal approval of Canadian drug imports to New Mexico. It calls for the creation of an advisory committee, composed of Cabinet secretaries and other leaders of key state agencies, to create a plan for drug importations that ensures both product safety and patient cost savings.

Federally controlled substances, including opioid painkillers, would be prohibited from the program, Armstrong said, and it would not allow patients to directly purchase medications online from Canadian drugmakers or other sellers.

The plan, which could become one of the first in the nation, would require approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Health and Human Services Department, lawmakers said.

SB 1 soared through Senate, passing the full chamber Tuesday on a vote of 35-0, and received unanimous support Friday from the House Health and Human Services Committee.

A $350,000 appropriation for the effort was stripped from SB 1, Armstrong said, because the funding has been included in the state budget bill, House Bill 2, which passed the full House this week and was sent to the Senate for consideration.

New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel and a representative from the state Office of the Superintendent of Insurance, which also would play a role on the new advisory committee, touted the measure Friday.

It also has support from some industry groups and patient advocates.

“New Mexico can’t afford price gouging,” said Jackie Cooper, state president of AARP. “The Legislature needs to pass this bill. … Medications don’t work if people can’t afford them.”

Dale Tinker, executive director of the New Mexico Pharmacists Association, said, “I think this bill provides a great opportunity in this state.”

He added that along with provisions to ensure cost savings for patients, it would create a “safe drug chain process. So, the trail from Canada to consumers in New Mexico — provisions in this bill provide for that to be safe.”

Republican Rep. Gregg Schmedes, a surgeon from Tijeras, spoke in support of SB 1 from the perspective of a medical professional who has no idea what a drug will cost a patient after he writes a prescription.

“I’m super frustrated with this issue,” Schmedes said.

But, he said, “I certainly don’t think anyone would make the argument that we want to stop here.”

He raised concerns about a prescription drug shortage that Canada has wrangled with for a decade.

“Can they even supply it?” he asked.

According to Health Canada, the nation’s public health agency, Canada currently has a shortage of more than 2,000 medications, largely due to manufacturing issues.

While he backs SB 1, Schmedes said, the state also must examine reasons for higher drug costs in the U.S., such as predatory practices in the industry, and the possibility of making prices more transparent for consumers.