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Colorado may try to import prescription drugs from more countries than just Canada

The idea is one of several lawmakers are drafting, as Gov. Jared Polis’ administration signals a new campaign to fight rising pharmaceutical costs

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Colorado officials continue to work on their plan to import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, but some state lawmakers are already looking to expand the program.

Sen. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, said Thursday she is drafting a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would expand the importation program to include additional countries. She hasn’t decided upon which countries yet, she said.

The proposal looks to be part of a busy session for bills tackling prescription drug costs, as lawmakers and the administration of Gov. Jared Polis open yet another front in their war on health care spending — this time taking on the pharmaceutical industry.

Ginal said she is also planning at least two bills intending to improve transparency on drug prices. 

“It’s been in hiding way too long,” she said. “We’ve got to bring into the open why these high prices exist.”

Ginal’s comments came following the release of a 50-page report by the state’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing looking at what is driving drug spending by the state’s Medicaid program, which HCPF administers.

The agency now spends more than $1 billion a year — more than 3% of the entire state budget — on prescription drugs. Before taking rebates from pharmaceutical makers into consideration, the state Medicaid program’s prescription drug costs rose 51% between 2012 and 2018. That increase was driven largely by the rising expense of specialty drugs, which increased 171% over those six years.

Kim Bimestefer, the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, speaks at a news conference unveiling a report on prescription drug costs, on Dec. 12, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

At a news conference unveiling the new report, HCPF Executive Director Kim Bimestefer said patent protections for drugmakers, a lack of transparency in how prices are set and where the money goes and an inability by federal agencies to control or negotiate prices all contribute to the problem.

“That, my friend, is the definition of a perfect storm,” she said.

Bimestefer is already busy working to build the state’s plan for importing prescription drugs from Canada. The legislature created the Canadian drug importation program this past session, but the federal government has yet to sign off. Bimestefer said Thursday the state could submit its application for federal approval as early as next month.

The program has faced doubts about whether it can come together, with both Canadian officials and drug companies expressing concern about American efforts to import drugs from Canada. But Bimestefer said she has met with the Canadian consul general in Denver and was not told that the nation would block exports to Colorado.

“They said, ‘Let’s keep talking,’” she said.

Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, who leads the state’s Office of Saving People Money on Health Care, said it is important for officials to address prescription drug costs now because they are the fastest-growing area of health care costs. She cited a statistic from the recent Colorado Health Access Survey, which found that more than one out of every five Coloradans have forgone medical treatment or filling a prescription because of the cost.

“It’s our job as policymakers,” she said, “to deliver relief for those hard-working Coloradans.”

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