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Legalizing International Prescription Drugs

The push to legalize imports of prescription drugs has been growing since the early 2000’s. Supporters include several state Attorneys General, governors, insurance companies, drugstore chains, congressmen, and virtually all consumers who see the expected lower price tags as extremely beneficial. However, the drug manufacturers themselves remain steadfastly opposed. If the United States were to open its borders and allow consumers to purchase their medications at the market price, this would be billions of dollars in lost revenue for the manufacturers and researchers. Nevertheless, large benefits would be seen by thousands of Medicare patients who are unable to have the federal government negotiate prices with drug producers directly as a result of laws passed regarding the program. So what is the best course of action for the country?

Many believe that legalization nationwide is inevitable. Americans are pushing for this issue and they won’t stop until they receive the results they desire. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, strongly opposed the idea while part of the Bush Administration but eventually conceded he felt Congress would most likely pass a bill in regards to this issue. However, Mr. Thompson did warn that such action could be expensive because regulators employed by the FDA would have to increase inspections of foreign pharmaceutical plants as well as monitor packages of prescription drugs entering the country. Drug companies have gone on the record to say that it will be impossible to guarantee the safety of imported drugs. They seem to imply that once the door is opened to international markets, America will be going down a slippery slope trying to monitor the drugs coming into the country. Another point of contest is their claim that Americans will not only be importing medications, but the price controls set by other companies as well.

An interesting twist in the debate came in 2004 when Thomas Ryan, CEO of CVS, became the first major drugstore chain executive to advocate in support of legalization bills. In a statement to a Health and Human Services task force he argued, “Millions of Americans have already opted to import drugs because they can’t afford not to. We owe it to them to face this issue head on and not look the other way.” Research from the Commonwealth Fund shows that 50 million Americans are not filling their prescriptions and taking vital medications due to its rising costs at US pharmacies. Ryan refuted claims that imports could not be done safely, stating that using established distributors of pharmaceuticals in America would be a viable option. Walgreens also joined the debate and gave an endorsement of proposed legalization bills, saying commercial drug imports would inevitably be safer than unregulated imports by individuals. By the end of the decade in 2010, many across the nation were of the sentiment that Americans should have access to world-class drugs at international market prices.  

Under proposals submitted to congress by 19 Attorneys General, states or their designated wholesalers would sign contracts with licensed Canadian pharmacies that met the safety standards set by the FDA for American pharmacies. Drugs would then be shipped directly to the United States. In the meantime, however, a spokesman from the FDA warned against the importation of prescription drugs stating, “These medications are illegal and may present health risks, and the FDA cannot ensure the safety, efficacy, and quality of medicine from these sources. The FDA cannot help consumers who have problems with medicine obtained from outside US regulation and oversight.” Maine became the first state to legalize imported prescriptions this year after the state House and Senate passed the law on June 13 and 14 respectively. Governor Paul LePage failed to sign or veto the bill and thus it became law that Thursday. However, for the rest of the country it seems Americans will have to continue debating the issue and searching for solutions. There is no doubt the government needs to find a long term solution to rising US drug prices, but this may not mean legalizing imported medications. Finding a balance between safety and affordability may take time.