Feds announce approval of Florida importing prescription drugs from Canada

A federal official told reporters that the announcement shows how the Trump Administration isn’t being distracted by “silly partisanship” on the day the president is facing an impeachment vote in the House.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during an announcement Monday, Nov. 4, 2019 in Palm Harbor.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during an announcement Monday, Nov. 4, 2019 in Palm Harbor. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 18, 2019|Updated Dec. 18, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Hours before a vote was expected in the U.S. House to formally impeach President Donald Trump, federal officials stood before reporters in Tallahassee to announce that they will allow states like Florida to import prescription drugs from Canada.

“President Trump and I, we’re just not going to be distracted by silly partisanship on the sidelines,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “We are driving ahead with bringing an ... affordable, patient-centric health care system to the American people.”

The announcement marked a step forward for Florida’s nascent efforts to curb rising drug prices and hands Republicans a potential policy win — if Canada agrees to cooperate.

The guidelines rolled out by Azar on Wednesday include a pathway for state governments to import Canadian drugs to be used by those receiving state-funded health care, such as Medicaid recipients and inmates in Florida’s prisons. Additionally, Azar said the federal government will also offer guidelines for American drug manufacturers to also import from Canada, eventually allowing American consumers to get cheaper drugs at local hospitals and pharmacies.

Drugs that must be injected, like insulin, as well as controlled substances such as opioid painkillers, are excluded from Florida’s importation proposal.

It has generally been illegal to import prescription drugs from Canada, but many Americans do so regardless — and federal officials largely have not enforced the ban. In countries like Canada, drugs are cheaper in part because its government controls how much pharmaceutical companies can charge for medication, though the U.S. does not.

And with bipartisan acknowledgement that rising drug prices must be curbed, a number of other states, including Vermont, Colorado and Maine, have recently eyed plans to import drugs from abroad. But any official path to importing medication from abroad had been long frozen because they lacked federal approval — despite a 2003 federal law that allowed officials to grant states permission.

That ice thawed significantly over the course of the year, particularly in Florida. This spring, state lawmakers passed a bill — at the behest of House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes and DeSantis — to authorize state health officials to pursue importation and ask for federal approval.

RELATED: Florida House approves drug imports from Canada

By the end of August, state officials at the Agency for Health Care Administration had submitted a concept plan they said could could save the state about $150 million (a minuscule fraction of Florida’s $91.1 billion budget) through medications from Canada alone.

“This is only one step ... but this is a step no one has been willing to take for almost 20 years,” DeSantis said Wednesday. He said that for Florida’s prison health care alone, it could save the state tens of millions.

As for the impeachment vote, DeSantis, a staunch Trump ally, echoed his past comments that it’s only a distraction from issues that matter to Floridians.

“Everyone in this room knows how this is ultimately going to end, and I think that’s why it’s lost support of the public and is not something that’s really energizing folks in the middle,” he said. “We’re just going to keep charging ahead.”

The announcement’s location in Tallahassee also hints at the favored-son status DeSantis holds with Trump — and the lobbying DeSantis regularly said he engaged in on calls with the president to secure federal approval.

Still, even with the synergy between Trump and DeSantis, this is not a done deal. This step by the federal government must still undergo a period of public comment and review, plus the state will need to build infrastructure for importation to happen, likely requiring more state funds.

That fight is likely to be bumpy: This year’s bill was bitterly opposed by pharmaceutical interests, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists and ads to denigrate the proposals as ineffective and unsafe.

Additionally, Canada still has to get on board. Canadian officials have said in the past that the country doesn’t have enough prescription drugs to share with their larger southern neighbor.

“Obviously the Canadians are going to be looking out for Canadians,” Azar said. “We hope they’ll work with us.”