Tech by VICE

Congress Just Missed an Opportunity to Give Americans Access to Cheaper Drugs

An amendment sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders was one of three that addressed the issue, but they were all voted down.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Jan 12 2017, 9:15pm

Image: wp paarz/Flickr

Senator Bernie Sanders quoted President-elect Donald Trump on the floor of Congress Wednesday night. The Democratic senator from Vermont admitted Trump is "a guy I don't quote very often," but the President-elect's comments from earlier that day actually aligned nicely with an amendment Sanders was co-sponsoring.

"[Trump] said that 'pharma gets away with murder.' That's what Trump said. He's right," Sanders said. "The pharmaceutical industry makes more and more money and the American people pay higher and higher prices. The time has come for us to stand up to the drug companies. Let's do it tonight."

Sanders' amendment to the budget bill would have made it legal to import prescription drugs from other countries, like Canada, where they're much cheaper than in the US. It was voted down, including by several Democratic senators, raising the eyebrows of some of their supporters. This was as the senate debated a provision in the budget bill that would set up the groundwork for repealing the Affordable Care Act—a provision that did pass, leaving many Americans more anxious than ever about healthcare accessibility.

Read More: Repealing Obamacare Will Seriously Disrupt How Doctors Work

It makes sense, then, that many Americans would think that importing cheaper drugs sounds like a great idea, now more than ever. But there's more to the story: two other amendments were proposed that also addressed drug prices Wednesday night, one of which got full Democratic support. That's because importing drugs is a complicated issue, and there are concerns with using it as a lever to lower drug prices in the US.

In other countries, the government sets a price cap or negotiates lower prices with drug manufacturers, which is why the same medication can sometimes be half or a third of the price in countries like Canada and Denmark. In the US, pharmaceutical companies are free to set their own prices, and patent laws mean there's often a long period where a company has a monopoly over a certain drug, allowing them to set sky-high prices. Importing drugs from other countries is currently illegal. Maine once tried to legalize it, but a federal judge overturned the law.

Allowing pharmacists and patients with a prescription to buy drugs back at half the price from Canada is touted as a way to force US companies to roll back their prices to stay competitive. But there's a concern that wholesalers, such as websites that already sell Canadian drugs to US consumers under the table, might not be subject to the same quality and safety checks that a licensed pharmacy would be.

"If you were to go to Canada and buy a drug that would be sold to a Canadian patient, you'd be just fine," said Peter Rice, a pharmacist and a professor at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. "But the regulations allowing drugs to be imported to Canada and then sold to somebody in another country doesn't necessarily [impose] the same quality controls."

This is one of the biggest concerns with using imported drugs as a way to try to force US drug companies to lower prices. Democratic Senator Bob Casey said on Twitter that that's why he couldn't support Sanders' amendment.

Instead, Casey and the rest of the Democratic senate voted in favor of a different amendment—one that would more broadly prioritize lowering drug prices—but it was blocked by Republican senators.

Another common concern is that any attempt to lower drug prices in the US would do such damage to pharmaceutical companies' bottom lines that they would no longer be able to afford the financial investment required to bring new drugs to market. But Rice, and many others, argue that there are ways to ensure that doesn't happen, such as relaxing regulations on experimental drug trials to help manufacturers get to market sooner. It just might not be as simple as opening up a pill pipeline from Canada.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.