Vermont Republican Gov. Phil Scott Wednesday signed legislation making his state the first to legalize importing prescription drugs from Canada, an idea President Donald Trump’s top health officials oppose that’s also drawn fierce opposition from the pharmaceutical industry.
A spokeswoman for Scott said he signed the bill Wednesday morning. The measure had overwhelming support in the Democratic-controlled legislature and is one of the most aggressive attempts by a state to tackle rising drug prices that critics say are crippling state finances.
Its enactment also puts the Trump administration in a bind after the rollout of a highly anticipated plan for tackling rising drug costs. HHS still has to certify Vermont’s program.
“Trump is trumpeting his desire to do something about high-cost drugs,” said Democratic state Sen. Claire Ayer, one of the bill sponsors. “I’m hoping that they’ll see it as an opportunity for him to say that he’s done something high drug prices.”
Trump previously backed the idea of importing drugs from Canada, but his top health appointees have been critical of the practice. HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Monday said any process to import drugs from other countries is a "gimmick."
"The United States has the safest regulatory system in the world. The last thing we need is open borders for unsafe drugs in search of savings that cannot be safely achieved," Azar, a former top executive at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, said. "You can’t improve competition and choice in our drug markets with gimmicks like these — you have to boost competition and price transparency."
The Vermont bill was modeled on legislation drafted by the National Academy for State Health Policy, a nonpartisan group that has convened state officials to come up with ideas for addressing rising drug costs. It would create a wholesale importation program to purchase high-cost drugs in Canada, where they often sell for less.
Drug reimportation legislation has been introduced in a handful of other states, but most of the bills stalled this year.
In a statement, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said it was “highly irresponsible” for Vermont legislators to promote an idea the trade group argues will create more avenues for counterfeit drugs in the midst of the opioid epidemic.
“Patient safety must be our top priority, and our public policies should reinforce — not undermine — that commitment,” Carroll said.
Several steps remain before the Vermont program would take effect. The state would be required to submit a certification request to the federal government by July 2019. Vermont also has not yet established a funding mechanism to pay for the program.
Sarah Karlin-Smith contributed to this report.