Colorado already allows the import of prescription drugs from Canada. Legislators want to open it to more countries.

Written by Patty Niebert Associated Press / Report to America

Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to add more countries to the state’s program that imports drugs from Canada.

The State Council’s Health and Insurance Commission passed a bill Wednesday that would expand the program if the federal program is also increased.

In 2020, under former President Donald Trump, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar implemented a rule to allow states to submit import program proposals to the Food and Drug Administration for review and authorization.

Colorado passed the Canadian import bill in 2019, and the state is still in the process of designing a program to file for federal approval. Representative Karen McCormick, a co-sponsor of the Colorado bill, said more than a dozen states were looking for similar legislation.

Colorado and Florida are the furthest, but no states are actively expanding their programs yet, according to Kim Bemstiver, executive director of the Colorado Department of Healthcare Policy and Finance.

“We would prefer to be in the driver’s seat,” said Bemstever, who testified in support of the bill. “We would rather influence (the federal government) on behalf of what Colorado needs than follow Florida.”

The Senate bill passed the House Committee by a majority of 5-8 votes Wednesday and will be put into the House of Representatives for discussion.

Bimestefer said it would address the issue of fairness among rural, low-income, and minority Colorado residents who are struggling the most with affordability for medicines Currently, one in 10 Colorado residents cannot afford prescription drugs, she said.

In her testimony, the executive director said that questioning the safety of foreign drugs is a “play of fear.” It said that 80% of drug ingredients and 60% of completed drugs actually come from overseas FDA-approved manufacturers.

The bill would add a third examination of existing pharmaceutical “track and trace” requirements.

Bemstiver told the committee that the reason for the high drug prices in the United States is twofold. One is because of the long-term patent protection of drug manufacturers that prevented generic forms of drugs from being put on the market. For example, the drug Humira, used to treat autoimmune diseases, has extended its patent for 23 years, Bemstiver said.

The other issue it pointed to is that while other countries negotiate drug prices with manufacturers during market approval, the United States is not.

“We feel very strongly that this will create pressure to lower prices … and prevent this country from creating ridiculous levels of profits in prescription drugs that other countries do not tolerate,” Bemstiver said of the Colorado bill.

Shabbir Safdar, executive director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines, a group of public health trade associations and non-profit organizations, opposed the bill, saying, “We are implementing a program that simply won’t happen” because of Canada’s opposition.

In a statement released in November, days before the Trump administration’s import program went into effect, Health Canada said that the distribution of some drugs outside Canada would be banned if that would lead to or worsen drug shortages.

“Canada has stated repeatedly that this rule will not be an effective approach to lowering drug prices in the United States given that the Canadian market is small, and it accounts for only 2% of global drug sales compared to 44% to the United States,” according to a statement by Patty Hajdu, Canadian Minister of Health.

A report from Kaiser Health News found that a third of the groups participating in the Partnership for Safe Medicines received funding from Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, the largest pharmaceutical lobbying group.

Safdar argued that there is a lack of security for imported medicines due to the lack of a “track and trace” program in Canada.

“Because of the history of counterfeiting operations, especially from wholesalers in Canada to America and specifically Colorado, it is not safe to implement these programs,” Safdar said.

Lauren Reville, director of the Drug Import Program at the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Finance, which is responsible for designing and implementing the Canadian program, said the law will not change local drug testing requirements.

“It doesn’t provide more opportunities to put counterfeit drugs into the supply chain than it might today,” said Rivelli.

Patty Nyberg is a member of the Associated Press / Report of America State House News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national service program that puts journalists in local newsrooms to report classified issues.

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