Colorado state Sen. Sen. Jim Smallwood, R-Parker, at the state Capitol in Denver. (Handout)

Embraced by leaders as diverse as former President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, importing drugs from Canada has been touted as a potent force in the fight to lower prescription drug prices.

I’m concerned that the deeper you dig into the idea, the more smoke-and-mirrors it becomes.

At the federal level, several previous Food and Drug Administration commissioners have maintained that there is no way to certify that importation would not create an additional health and safety risk to the public.

Sen. Jim Smallwood

Additionally, as of Nov. 27, 2020, the Canadian Ministry of Health ordered what is described as a block of the exportation of prescription drugs that could cause or worsen a drug shortage there, leaving as many as 2,000 Canadian medicines out of reach to Americans.

In the Colorado state legislature, where I serve as a state senator, the majority supported Gov. Polis’ Colorado importation scheme in 2018 despite opposition from so many in the business community, drug safety experts, and most members of my Republican caucus. 

We felt at that time – and still feel – that getting any measurable supply of cheap Canadian drugs is simply not going to happen. This on top of the fact that the governor’s importation program is costing Coloradans millions of precious taxpayer dollars just to create.

Canadian importation programs require voluntary participation from wholesalers and suppliers, yet representatives of these groups have expressed serious concerns with importation. In Florida, no private firms bid on the state Agency of Health Care Administration’s invitation to negotiate on a $30 million contract to operate the state’s drug importation program by the September 2020 due date. Bidding had been open since June 2020.

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I believe the Polis administration will see a similar result here in Colorado, where there has now been a formal Invitation to negotiate released with a deadline of April 26 to apply. It will be interesting to see if a stampede of private vendors suddenly shows interest in running a program that I believe is unlikely to move forward in a meaningful way.

But the real damage being caused is the time, energy and money diverted from reality-based solutions for lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

I think that we can take significant steps today to help patients and insurance purchasers:

• We can stop the practice of drug rebates that manufacturers pay to insurance companies and benefit managers, and instead send the money directly to consumers or require those rebates make it to patients. 

• We can encourage greater use of voluntary performance-based contracts in which drug manufacturers are not paid a list price, but a price based on the savings generated in our health care system by the drug. 

• We can demand greater transparency from drug makers on how they price and distribute medications. 

• We can finally start to deal with the ways that drugs are currently marketed to the public.

These are just some of the impactful, consumer-centered ideas that can happen now.  Unlike importation, these solutions don’t require federal approval that has moved at a snail’s pace, a supply of drugs that doesn’t appear to ever be available at a savings, or a group of vendors who don’t appear to want to participate in the program. 

Drug importation is one political pipe dream that has gone nowhere fast, and I hope my colleagues in the state legislature will instead pivot toward delivering policies which will really lower the cost of prescription drugs.

Jim Smallwood of Parker is a Republican representing state Senate District 4 in Douglas County.

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