As lawmakers seek to reach agreement on key policy issues in the final three weeks of the legislative session, the Florida House passed several healthcare bills Thursday, including measures that would allow importing prescription drugs from Canada with federal approval and encouraging patients to shop for cheaper healthcare to reduce their insurance premiums.

The measures, endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, are among a string of healthcare priorities championed by Speaker José Oliva, who has made deregulation in the area a key focus of his legislative agenda.

The prescription drug plan, House Bill 19 — sponsored by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach — has been touted by both politicians as a way to curb rising drug costs in the state. The proposal, passed 93-22, outlines two pathways for importing drugs: one specifically for state entities to import drugs from Canada, and another that would open up importation from other countries to private consumers.

Under a 2003 federal law, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would need to approve Florida’s plan for it to take effect. No state has yet received that regulatory approval, though Vermont last year became the first state to pass a bill that would allow prescription drugs to be imported from Canada.

Canada imposes restrictions on how much pharmaceutical companies are allowed to charge for medicines — the U.S. does not. Though it is technically illegal to import prescriptions from Canada, many Americans currently do so under a federal non-enforcement policy, including some entities in Florida.

The bill drew a flurry of criticism from Democrats in debates Wednesday and Thursday, as they questioned the regulatory mechanisms that would be in place, how drug safety might be ensured and how effective the proposal might be in ensuring drugs imported from abroad would not be subject to markups that would erase savings for the consumer.

A free-market experiment

Leek pointed to the regulatory authority outlined in the bill under the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department for Business and Professional Regulation, and cast the plan as a free-market experiment that consumers could reject if unneeded.

“The entire program is built around the concept that if it is cheaper you use it; if it’s not cheaper you don’t use it,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work.”

Leek also dismissed a question about how ready Canada, a nation of 37 million people, might be for the increased demand another 21 million Floridians might pose to their own pharmaceutical supply.

“I don’t think it matters,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an excuse not to try.”

The Senate version of the bill, SB 1528, differs most substantially in limiting proposed importation to drugs only from Canada, and also requires the legislature to grant approval for the program a second time should it be approved by federal officials. It is awaiting its final committee hearing before it reaches the floor.

Another DeSantis-backed proposal, House Bill 1113, which would encourage patients to seek out cheaper healthcare to reduce their health insurance premiums, did pass the House unanimously. Its Senate companion Senate Bill 524 is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Appropriations committee.

Telehealth advances

House lawmakers Thursday also approved several other bills Oliva has flagged as priorities, including House Bill 23, which would encourage insurers to use telehealth and deliver healthcare services via the internet or other technological means.

Though some lawmakers, including Democratic Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith criticized a provision in the bill that would grant $30 million in tax credits for insurers as “corporate welfare,” the bill passed the house 102-14.

Sponsor Rep. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, framed the credits as necessary incentives to speed up adoption of such practices, though some providers have already implemented adopted telehealth services.

“Whether it’s an urban or a rural patient, we want them to have efficient, safe and quality healthcare — that’s the urgency, if you will, behind this,” he said, rejecting suggestions that the state mandate providing such services instead. “This is an investment.”

Its corresponding Senate bill is scheduled for its second hearing next week.

Genetic testing restrictions

Lawmakers also approved House Bill 879, which would bar life insurers from using genetic tests to limit or deny coverage, by an 88-26 vote — the bill mirrors an existing ban on using such increasingly popular tests to determine health insurance coverage.

Insurance lobbyists had strongly opposed the bill in both the House and Senate, but bill sponsor Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, said the legislation was needed to protect patients’ privacy. The Senate version of the bill, which has so far cleared two committees, is largely similar but does not bar life insurers from using genetic information they might already possess.

All those proposals go now to the Senate, where some of these bills are still winding through committees and its leader, President Bill Galvano, has said he is more hesitant to match Oliva’s broad deregulatory moves.

But lawmakers will have to compromise on the policy disagreements in the next three weeks. for the measures to pass. The legislative session ends May 3.