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Maine Health Advocates React To Trump Administration's Prescription Drug Import Announcement

Getty Images via NPR

Maine Democrats and health advocates are praising an announcement Wednesday from the Trump administration that it will explore ways to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

The announcement bolsters a new state law, signed by Gov. Janet Mills, to develop a wholesale drug importation program with our neighbors to the north. But some health policy experts are skeptical that such a plan is viable.

Democratic Maine Senate President Troy Jackson was the sponsor of the state’s bill to establish a drug importation program with Canada. He says it's about time that the federal government took action to lower drug prices.

"We put a lot of effort in this session, and it always was to push the federal government to do what is right, and it feels like that's finally coming to fruition,” Jackson says. “So I feel a real sense of hope in that regard."

His bill was signed into law by Mills, but it ultimately requires federal approval. The Trump administration's announcement signals that that’s more likely.

Ann Woloson of Consumers for Affordable Health Care says it could happen relatively quickly.

"The hope would be that Maine would be able to do something sooner rather than later, perhaps in the next year, year and a half," says Woloson.

But others are less confident that any plans to import drugs from Canada are viable. Maine-based independent health policy consultant Mitchell Stein says one reason is that the U.S. market for prescription drugs is exponentially larger than the Canadian.

"We've seen busloads of people going into Canada and going to a drug store, and that can work, but it just can't scale,” Stein says. “There currently isn't the supply in Canada."

And Stein is doubtful that Canada would be able to increase its supply.

"There's no reason to think that manufacturers would be willing to increase the lower cost supply when they're currently getting more money here in the U.S." Stein says.

Stein also points to a recent report in Reuters. The news outlet obtained documents that revealed Canadian officials are opposed to U.S. plans that threaten the supply and cost of prescription drugs for its own citizens.

Sen. Jackson, however, says that's not the message he's getting in his discussions with officials in New Brunswick and Quebec.

"I think we could do that tomorrow if we had a plan that was approved by the federal government,” Jackson says. “I mean, they're waiting, you know, ready and willing."

Woloson, from Consumers for Affordable Health Care, also thinks Canadian suppliers would be motivated to export more drugs because of the financial benefits.

"I hear the skepticism, but I don't honestly believe that it's going to be a problem,” Woloson says. “We can't not attempt to do this, especially if the end effect means Maine people will end up paying less for the drugs they need."

Gov. Mills is ready to press forward with Maine's program. In a media release, she says she spoke to U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar Wednesday to let him know that Maine is ready to review, shape and take advantage of the new rule.

Updated 5:12 p.m. July 31, 2019