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Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a news conference at Denver Health medical center on April 4, 2019, to reissue his health care roadmap from the campaign. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

President Donald Trump told Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in a phone call Wednesday that he approves of the state’s plan to lower prescription costs by importing drugs from Canada.

“The president expressed his support for the drug importation bill and his commitment to ensuring Colorado receives approval,” a spokeswoman for Polis said in a statement Thursday.

The president’s backing may remove a big uncertainty around a plan that lawmakers hope can cut prices by as much as 50% for certain drugs that will be part of the program. The state is still putting together specifics of the program, including the list of drugs eligible to be imported. But it will ultimately require federal approval to be done legally.

“That’s half the battle,” state Sen. Joann Ginal, a Democrat from Fort Collins who sponsored the drug importation bill at the Capitol this year, said upon hearing of Trump’s supportive comments.

The other half may be more difficult, though. Ginal said the proposal must be approved by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who will require the state to show that the program will actually reduce costs and be safe for patients. In a break with his boss, Azar has criticized the idea that imported drugs from Canada can reduce pharmaceutical prices in America.

MORE: Colorado lawmakers are backing big health care system changes. But the Trump administration may get the final say

But news reports earlier this week said that Trump, in an Oval Office meeting on Monday, instructed Azar to work with Florida to get that state’s proposed drug importation program up and running. That’s more good news for Colorado because officials here have been trying to make the state program look as much as possible like Florida’s after Trump signaled his support for that program early on. Polis has said he’s talked with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about the idea.

Sen. Robert Rodriguez, a Denver Democrat who also worked on the bill, said there were concerns during the legislative process that the waiver wouldn’t be approved because Florida was still waiting to hear back from the Trump administration. But he thinks that the growing number of state’s seeking to import prescription drugs from Canada potentially helped tip the scales.

“Seeing several sates pass similar legislation sends a clear message to D.C.,” Rodriguez said.

At a Thursday meeting of the Colorado Business Group on Health, Kim Bimestefer, the head of the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, said she is working closely with her counterpart in Florida, as well as with officials in Vermont and at the National Academy for State Health Policy, to make sure Colorado’s program matches up with what others are doing nationally. Bimestefer said she is optimistic about the program’s future.

“Joann (Ginal) and I are getting our truckers’ licenses because we have to figure out how to get those drugs from there to here,” she joked.

The program has an estimated $3 million price tag for the first two years, including the cost of hiring vendors that will actually do the importing.

Ginal said the list of drugs to be included in the program will be put together by Bimestefer’s office after examining which drugs are most used and most expensive and can be bought at the steepest discounts in Canada.

She mentioned EpiPens, asthma inhalers and cholesterol medicines as possible candidates. Vermont has a list of 17 drugs it hopes to import from Canada, and Ginal said Colorado’s list will likely be of similar size.

The goal, she said, is to create savings of 30% to 50% by importing the drugs.

“And I think on some medications we’re going to see even more than 50%,” she said. “That’s going to help patients so much.”

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...

John Ingold

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...