Gov. DeSantis signs bill that would allow Florida to pursue importing prescription drugs

Components of the new law will require federal approval to take effect.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a stop at Tampa Bay Academy on April 15 in Tampa. (CHRIS URSO  |   Times)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a stop at Tampa Bay Academy on April 15 in Tampa. (CHRIS URSO | Times)
Published June 11, 2019

Citing the need to reduce rising health care costs, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Tuesday that would allow Florida to pursue importing prescription drugs from abroad — though components of the bill will still require federal approval to take effect.

HB 19 will open up three pathways for bringing medication in from different countries, including Canada, through a 2003 federal law that tasks federal officials with authorizing state plans to import prescription drugs. No state has received such approval in the 16 years since the bill was passed, but DeSantis, surrounded by a half-dozen lawmakers in the Villages, said he is confident Florida will clear those hurdles when the state asks for the approval likely next year.

“This will have the potential to save the state a lot of money,” he said to supporters before he signed the bill. “I’m just glad that we’re here today and able to say we’re listening to the people who have concerns about these costs and we’re taking action to help get people relief.”

It is illegal to currently import prescription drugs from Canada, though many Americans do so nevertheless and federal officials largely do not enforce the ban. Canadian drugs are cheaper in part because the country imposes limits on how much pharmaceutical companies can charge, while the United States does not.

The bill directs state agencies to establish multiple pathways for bringing in international prescription drugs and, in some cases ask federal Health and Human Services officials to sign off on their implementation.

One, through Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, would allow the state to bring drugs in from Canada for use by state agencies like for the Department of Corrections or for Medicaid patients.

The second would establish a program to bring in prescription drugs from other countries, overseen by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation for commercial use, while the last would have DBPR and the state’s Department of Health — still without its nominated secretary in place — run a pilot program that does not need federal approval.

The bill was strongly opposed by pharmaceutical interests during the legislative session, who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into ads and lobbying to criticize the proposals as unsafe or unlikely to dent rising drug costs. House Speaker José Oliva, who brought the proposal to DeSantis’ attention shortly after he took office, cast that opposition Tuesday as proof of the bill’s potential to “shift the paradigm in prescription drugs.”

Even with the bill passed, it will likely take until next year for Florida to officially seek approval from Washington, DeSantis said. State lawmakers will also have to approve funding for the first two pathways described in the bill next year.

Federal approval for the programs, however, may not be so easily forthcoming. The federal 2003 Medicare Modernization Act would permit officials in D.C. to allow state-level importation, though past Health and Human Services secretaries, appointed by presidents of both parties, have historically resisted the idea. The current federal secretary, Alex Azar, has also called the idea a “gimmick” that would be ineffective considering the smaller size of Canada’s pharmaceutical market.

Vermont passed a similar bill last year to seek permission from federal officials, but its program has not yet been approved.

Florida officials, DeSantis said, “are already working directly with Health and Human Services at the federal level” to ensure the proposals are received favorably. DeSantis has also touted the support of President Donald Trump, with whom he discussed the idea multiple times this year. The governor said Tuesday that he is discussing the idea with Trump again next week.

“I’ve been in the Oval Office arguing the case when almost everyone else in his administration has been saying don’t do it,” he said, adding Trump remains committed to the idea. “I don’t think we would have been able to get this done or have a pathway to get this done were it not for the president’s willingness to do it.”

The drug importation bill’s signing marks a second win for DeSantis on some of his key healthcare issues. The state Board of Medicine last week approved changes to its rules on medical marijuana and approved forms doctors can use to order smokeable versions of the drug for their patients. DeSantis, in a reversal from his predecessor, had backed allowing smokeable medical marijuana and pushed lawmakers to repeal the ban on smoking it during the past legislative session.