Congress could soon greenlight the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
Drug importation polls well, so pandering politicians have long given lip service to the idea as a way to pretend they’re doing something — no matter how disingenuous — to lower Americans’ drug prices.
But the FDA has historically warned against the practice. Regulators know that importation is a disaster waiting to happen for American patients, especially vulnerable seniors.
For starters, importation won’t save patients money. Canadian officials have repeatedly warned that they won’t tolerate any mass importation scheme since the overwhelming level of demand from the United States — which has almost 10 times more people than Canada — would lead to bare pharmacy shelves north of the border.
Those officials also warn that they cannot guarantee the safety or authenticity of “Canadian” drugs shipped to the United States.
And that’s an enormous problem. Previous investigations have revealed that when Americans have illicitly ordered shipments from “Canadian” pharmacies, many of those pills originated in other countries like India and Turkey, were sent to Canada to get a Canadian postmark, and then sent to the United States. One inspection of almost 3,600 packages at the Canadian border found that 87 percent contained fake or unlicensed medications.
In other words, patients think they’re getting cheap, reputable Canadian drugs. In reality, they’re receiving who-knows-what.
Consider a case involving a fake batch of the HIV/AIDS drug Serostim. Regulators detected the fake pills in seven states. They contained no active ingredient, meaning that patients were unknowingly going untreated.
Drugs for serious chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease are among the most commonly counterfeited medicines.
These risks explain why, for more than two decades, top Democrats and Republicans at the Department of Health and Human Services and FDA have repeatedly expressed concerns about the safety of drug importation.
Importation proponents claim that states could mitigate these safety concerns by buying drugs only directly from legitimate Canadian pharmacies. But because Canada has no interest in jeopardizing its drug supply, it won’t play ball with American state officials.
Legalizing importation will expose vulnerable patients, especially seniors, to scams. After hearing that importing prescriptions is legal, folks will inevitably search for online pharmacies.
Imagine Grandma clicks on a seemingly legitimate site and orders her cholesterol medication. She might very well receive sugar pills — or worse. Consider the findings of an FDA sting operation, and the subsequent report, that examined imported drugs that consumers thought were Canadian. In reality, “85 percent came from 27 other countries around the globe. A number of these products were also found to be counterfeit.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided counterfeiters with more opportunities to flood the market with dangerous products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that up to 60 percent of KN95 masks in the United States are counterfeit.
Giving importation the thumbs up now would further embolden these criminals — and make Americans suffer the consequences.
Lawmakers are presumably aware of these dangers. But they appear set to proceed with importation talks anyway to score cheap political points.
Make no mistake; we’re in need of a national conversation about prescription drug affordability. But gambling on patients’ lives shouldn’t be part of the discussion.