Only in America would we allow drug companies to charge ludicrous prices for life-saving medicines that our taxes paid to invent.
And only in America would we stop people from buying those same drugs, made by the same manufacturers, often in the same factories, from a country like Canada where they’re actually affordable.
The problem isn’t Canada. It’s Big Pharma. They get away with murder in this country – literally. The industry spends more on lobbying than any other, and in exchange, they get to set their prices as high as they want.
It should come as no surprise that federal laws preventing reimportation (buying medicines from abroad) can be traced back to PhRMA, the lobbying group representing the pharmaceutical industry. And PhRMA isn’t above meddling in small, state-level attempts to make the practice legal either.
In 2015, they lobbied hard to overturn the Maine Pharmacy Act, which would have allowed Maine residents to buy prescription meds from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, which have similar regulation and oversight standards as the U.S. When the law was successfully struck down, the bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Troy Jackson, put it bluntly: “The pharmaceutical industry wins these things 10 out of 10 times, so I’m not surprised.”
The industry argument against reimportation is typically that it’s dangerous: they claim there’s no way to know if the meds are safe, implicitly conflating “medicines purchased abroad” with “counterfeit medicines.” Part of what makes their arguments stick is that they are often made by professors and “researchers” who present themselves as neutral third parties, but are in fact on PhRMA’s payroll.
Of course, that argument is pure fear-mongering. As Zaid Jilani and David Dayen wrote earlier this year in their coverage of Bernie Sanders’ reimportation bill:
The safety excuse is mostly a chimera, as most of the drugs that would be imported from Canada were originally manufactured in the United States; they’re just cheaper there, because the Canadian government uses a review board and price negotiation to make drugs more affordable.
That’s not to suggest that counterfeit drugs aren’t a problem. But for Big Pharma to paint Canadian pharmacies as shadowy purveyors of millions of fake drugs is morbidly ironic. The truth is that, as Gabriel Levit wrote for the New York Times:
There are no reported examples of Americans dying by taking real, but F.D.A.-unapproved, medication bought online from a foreign pharmacy that requires valid prescriptions. This is after tens of millions of prescriptions have been filled online and internationally over the past 15 or so years, since online pharmacies were created…
The most tragic domestic drug-safety-related deaths in recent years are not from personal drug importation or online pharmacies. Eighty-one Americans died from tainted heparin in 2007-8 made by an American company with bad Chinese pharmaceutical ingredients. Sixty-four Americans died from fungal meningitis contracted from United States-made tainted steroid injections sold by poorly regulated compounding pharmacies. These drugs were sold in the legal supply chain.
The pharmaceutical industry make the same excuse over and over to justify their inaccessible medicines: they must charge high prices to pay for risky research and development. This is another lie.
The truth is that as much as half of biomedical R&D is actually paid for by our taxes, largely through our funding of the National Institute of Health, which has devoted itself to biomedical research since the mid-1930’s, taking the risks that profit-motivated companies refuse to take. What Big Pharma spends its money on is marketing, enormous salaries, and the creation of “me too” drugs, which take existing meds and make just enough of a tweak to get a whole new patent.
These massive drug corporations aren’t health care providers; they’re glorified hedge fund managers.
For example, we’ve had a cure for hepatitis C for years, developed by a doctor working at the taxpayer-funded Department of Veterans Affairs, supported by generous grants from the taxpayer-funded National Institute of Health. If that surprises you, it’s understandable: the global hepatitis C crisis isn’t slowing down, and in the U.S. it’s disproportionately affecting Black folks and poor people of all races; some estimates say as many as 1 in 3 people incarcerated today are suffering from the disease.
So why no dent in the crisis more than a decade after the cure’s development? Because the very same people most likely to contract hep C are the least likely to be able afford the cure: Big Pharma corporation Gilead bought the rights to the cure, got a monopoly, and is now charging $1,000 per pill.
Meanwhile, in India, where the government doesn’t grant those kinds of monopolies, the price for the same exact pill is just $4.
Making it legal to buy prescription meds from Canada won’t solve our affordable drug crisis. But it will provide immediate, material benefit to the people who need it most. As Levit points out, there’s something much, much more dangerous than reimportation:
A much greater public health crisis…is non-adherence to prescribed medication because of cost. CVS pharmacists reported in a survey that drug costs are the No. 1 reason that Americans do not take medications that have been prescribed. The National Consumer League estimates that nearly 125,000 Americans die each year from not taking needed drugs that were prescribed, or not taking them correctly. Fifty million Americans did not fill prescriptions in 2012 because of high drug prices, according to the Commonwealth Fund.
Every single Presidential candidate, including Trump, said they would lower prescription drug prices. Reimportation is the quickest, easiest way to start, especially with a government that is so deeply in the pocket of drug corporations and insurance companies.
Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill that would make it legal to buy safe, affordable meds from Canada. Senator Cory Booker and three other Dems who originally opposed the bill have changed their tune after a huge outcry. If you want your Senators to do the same, you can send them a letter using the form below.