ANNAPOLIS – Importing drugs from Canada would be vastly cheaper than buying them in the United States, but “just as safe as if they were coming out of Indianapolis,” said backers of prescription-drug reform bills Tuesday.
That claim was immediately challenged by pharmaceutical industry officials, who said Canadian drugs are not properly screened before they are exported and could ultimately harm the health of Maryland residents.
“I don’t think cherry-picking Canada’s health care system is the solution,” said Chris Ward, a former Ontario legislator, who testified on behalf of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). “Importation is no solution for good policy.”
Those were the opening shots in the debate over prescription drugs Tuesday, as the House Health and Government Operations Committee held the first full day of hearings on the issue.
With the number of Marylanders who cannot afford needed medicines surging into the thousands, lawmakers have introduced a number of bills to keep prescription drugs in supply and affordable.
Three House bills and one Senate bill would allow the state to import prescription drugs from Canada, where they are cheaper. Supporters of those proposals accused pharmaceutical companies of setting high prices in order to maximize profits while ignoring the needs of low-income consumers.
“The best medicines in the world will not help a person who cannot afford them,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, sponsor of the Senate drug-import bill.
Delegate David Rudolph, D-Cecil, has introduced a companion to Pinsky’s bill in the House. Their bills call for the state to seek a federal waiver so it can import Canadian drugs, and require the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to certify the drugs’ safety and to attempt to get matching federal funds.
Rudolph said the drug companies — which had prepared dictionary-thick binders for each committee member — did not have facts to back up all their assertions, especially the claim that they need to charge so much for drugs in order to fund research and development.
“Let’s talk about the profits that these companies have had,” Rudolph said. “They’re making millions and millions of dollars and they can’t afford to do research and development?”
Rudolph, who is chairman of the subcommittee on pharmaceuticals, said “the amount of money we can save the citizens of Maryland (with Canadian drugs) is unbelievable.”
Those savings could amount to $20 million to $30 million a year, said Ken Ladley, a vice president for No Borders USA Inc., which imports and sells Canadian drugs. He said Canadian drugs, which are created as far away as Europe and Asia, would be “just as safe as if they were coming out of Indianapolis, Indiana.”
Opponents countered by saying that not only are Canadian drugs not properly screened before they are exported, but there is no guarantee Canada would have enough drugs to meet U.S. demand.
Ward said drug costs in the United States are being driven up by this country’s medical liability system, not greedy pharmaceutical companies.
Other lobbyists charged that a Canadian drug plan would harm Maryland’s thriving biotechnology industry by creating an environment that dissuades venture capitalists from investing.
But at least one industry official — who was speaking on his own behalf — said it is time for the government to rein in drug companies to protect the uninsured.
Peter Rost, a vice president for Pfizer Inc., said drug companies spend most of their research and development funds on patent issues, copycat drugs and other things designed to protect profits.
“In the U.S. we don’t have a free market,” said Rost, who has negotiated drug prices for 20 years, “We have a market where the drug companies can set whatever price they want.”
Rost, who is scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate Wednesday, was testifying Tuesday on behalf of a separate bill that would allow the Health Services Cost Review Commission to analyze and regulate prescription drug prices and force drug companies to disclose how they determine prices.
But an official for the Health Services Cost Review Commission testified against the bill, saying the commission does not have staff adequate to implement the proposal.
More hearings are scheduled for Wednesday, but advocates said that any state action would only be a first step toward fixing the drug crisis.
“This is a short-term solution,” Pinsky said of state lawmakers’ plans. “Ultimately there has to be a federal solution.”