POLITICS
07/09/2014 01:52 pm ET

McCain, Klobuchar Team Up On Bill Allowing Prescription Drug Imports From Canada

Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have revived a congressional effort to allow individuals to import cheaper prescription drugs for their personal use.

The Safe and Affordable Drugs from Canada Act is billed as legislation that would rein in drug costs and stimulate greater competition within the pharmaceutical industry.

"In Minnesota, we know that Canadians often pay much less for their prescription drugs, but current law prevents Americans from importing these cheaper alternatives and benefitting from these savings," Klobuchar said in a statement Tuesday. "This bipartisan bill would make a commonsense fix and allow individuals to import safe, low-cost prescription drugs from Canada, injecting new competition into the U.S. pharmaceutical market and bringing down costs for families."

McCain echoed Klobuchar's justification for the bill, saying that he believes "prescription drugs ought to be affordable for all Americans."

The senators' legislation would mandate that imported prescription drugs have to be purchased from an approved Canadian pharmacy and dispensed by a licensed pharmacist.

In recognition that the Senate has little work time left before the elections, Klobuchar said in a Wednesday statement to The Huffington Post that "Senator McCain and I are going to continue to push to get this done, including in the lame duck session.”

Americans spend an average of almost $1,000 per person per year on pharmaceuticals, which is about 40 percent more than the next highest country's average.

A 2012 report found that a month's supply of Cymbalta, which is used to treat depression or chronic pain, costs $149 on average in the United States, compared with $113 in Canada. The allergy drug Nasonex cost Americans $105 but Canadians only $29 for a month's supply. The report calculated U.S. prices using the rates negotiated by health plan providers.

Americans in need of prescription drugs have resorted to surreptitiously ordering drugs from foreign countries, having their doctors prescribe twice the needed dose, splitting pills or obtaining their medications from family members or friends who have more comprehensive insurance coverage.

Members of Congress from both parties have been pursuing legislation to allow prescription drug imports since the Clinton administration. Lawmakers attempted to include a provision on drug reimportation in the Affordable Care Act as it was being written in 2009. Opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, which struck a deal with the White House to support the legislation, stymied the effort.

Michael Law, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia's Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, told HuffPost that such a bill could actually have an impact across the border.

"If this was ever done on a grand scale, I can assure you that Canadian prices would not remain lower for very long," Law said. "There's a reason [pharmaceutical companies] try to fight these bills."

The steep contrast in prices for prescription drugs between the United States and Canada reflects different approaches to regulating the costs of prescription drugs. In Canada, a government agency essentially places a ceiling on how much companies can charge for drugs based on a median price taken from comparing the cost of drugs in other countries. The government also restricts cost increases based on various economic indicators.

The United States, on the other hand, leaves the price of drugs to the whims of market forces, though health plan providers often negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies.

"The only people for whom the price differences are there, the ones who take a hit, are those Americans who have to pay out of their own pocket or who have a high-deductible plan," Law explained.

Maine recently became the first state in the nation to allow its residents to purchase prescription drugs from online pharmacies in Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.

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