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Trump’s plan to import drugs into U.S. and Florida faces legal challenge

The challenge comes from an unsurprising place: pharmaceutical companies.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks before President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Pensacola, Fla., Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks before President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Pensacola, Fla., Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]
Published Nov. 27, 2020|Updated Nov. 27, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — An influential pharmaceutical lobbying group is suing to end the Trump administration’s plan to allow prescription drugs to be imported from Canada into the United States.

That could have major implications for Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Donald Trump have highlighted state and federal efforts to lower the cost of prescriptions. DeSantis announced last week that Florida’s importation plan had been submitted to the federal government.

“For far too long, Floridians have been paying exorbitant prices for prescription drugs,” DeSantis said in a Monday release announcing his administration’s plan. “Today, we take another step towards lowering those prices.”

The lawsuit, filed on the same day of DeSantis’ announcement in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., alleges that the federal government has not proven the program DeSantis hopes to participate in would be safe or cost effective — two standards required by federal law for commercial distribution of foreign prescription drugs.

James C. Stansel, the executive vice president and general counsel for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, one of the groups suing the Trump administration, said past administrations haven’t allowed states to import foreign drugs for a reason.

“Every secretary that has looked at this in the past 20 years, Republican or Democrat, has said, I can’t certify to either one of these things,” Stansel said, referring to the cost and safety standards.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

In the release announcing Florida’s plan, the governor’s office said the state would put measures into place that would “ensure counterfeit drugs do not enter the supply chain.” The release noted the state would start its program by importing a few different kinds of drugs for people with chronic illnesses.

Florida’s drug importation plan was approved by the Legislature in 2019. It will be administered by Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration. Earlier this year, Kaiser Health News reported the agency was having difficulty finding a third-party vendor to operate the program.

The debate over the cost of prescription drugs is highly political. President Donald Trump has long argued he’s fighting against the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, which spends tens of millions of dollars lobbying in Washington, D.C. every year. In 2019, PhRMA alone spent $29 million on D.C. lobbying.

Meredith Beatrice, a DeSantis spokeswoman, said that the lawsuit by “Big Pharma” is an attempt to “block the advancement of a program that will help ensure access to more affordable prescription drugs for Americans.”

Stansel, who did not comment on Florida’s specific plan, said the lawsuit had nothing to do with drug companies’ bottom line and everything to do with safety.

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For instance, Stansel said, how would Americans know the drugs they’re importing from Canada actually originated in Canada?

When asked about Trump’s contention that politicians from both parties were overly friendly to pharmaceutical companies, Stansel argued the person calling the shots on drug importation should be above the influence of lobbying.

“I just don’t think that’s the reason this is happening,” Stansel said. “It’s the unelected secretary of (Health and Human Services) that has the responsibility to determine safety and cost savings. Frankly, he hasn’t done it. We’re suing that person to do their job.”


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