I’m telling you Canadian drugs are safe but vote against importation.
In the Utah House of Representatives, Health and Human Services Committee, there was a meeting a few weeks back to discuss Rep. Norman Thurston’s drug importation bill. The bill’s aim is to lower prescription drug costs for Utah by importing lower-cost medications from Canada. The committee passed it 9-2. A week later, the Utah House passed the bill 39-31! But in that committee meeting, during the public session where organizations came out in favor and against the bill, something unique happened.
During his remarks against Thurston’s drug importation bill, one Mr. Peter Pitts said, and I quote from the audio clip: “I will tell you one thing in defense of Canada…If you drive up across the border and you go to a brick and mortar pharmacy and you get a product. That product is safe and effective; just as safe and effective as a U.S. product.”
I’ve followed and written about Big Pharma’s positions on importation for over 15 years. Its mantra and that of its hired guns is that the U.S. system for regulating pharmaceuticals is the world’s “gold standard.” As you’ll discover, Mr. Pitts, as I see it, is one of those hired guns and a notable one. Therefore, it’s great and fun to have him on the record, clearly (emphatically) stating that Canada’s system for regulating prescription drugs and the drugs sold in Canadian pharmacies are just as good as the ones sold here. That means Canada is the Gold Standard, too!
Note to all my fellow Americans that didn’t already know: if you live close to Canada and can’t afford your medication, then, according to Mr. Pitts, the medication there is damn good…not to mention a lot less expensive. Did you also know that federal law bans U.S. Customs Border Patrol from preventing people who are traveling back from Canada from importing small quantities of prescription drugs when they are for personal use? See: Can I drive to Canada to fill a prescription?
This week I’m down in Washington, DC, talking to policy-makers and activists, setting off alarm bells about Big Pharma’s campaign to not only kill prescription importation legislation but also the ability for Americans to currently buy medications from Canada and elsewhere at all. I have a feeling Big Pharma knows I’m here, which is kind of cool (but also freaks me out because they are very powerful and we are not). Here’s the very quick story.
When I searched “pharmacychecker” in Google I noticed the top advertisement was placed by none other than the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (“Big Pharma”). That ad doesn’t show up in Brooklyn where I live but appears targeted in Google to the DC area. They know that our pricing information, verification work we do for patient safety, and advocacy is compelling to some public policy and healthcare advocates down here, so they pay Google to get their message on top. As if Big Pharma’s 1100 lobbyists aren’t enough!
It’s a badge of honor (but there’s no sleep til Brooklyn).
Since Americans started importing medications for personal use in larger numbers at the beginning of the last decade, the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Big Pharma, has engaged in media and government relations scare tactics to try and stop them. Apparently, when it comes to foreign versions of the new FDA-Approved Emflaza, which treats Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, one board member of PhRMA supports importation!
Last week, I wrote about the decision of drug company Marathon Pharmaceuticals to postpone selling Emflaza over pricing concerns and how the issue shines a bright light on the benefits of personal drug importation. To summarize: some folks are outraged because Emflaza (deflazacort) was launched at a price of $89,000 for a one year supply. This seems insane when foreign versions of deflazacort, which cost 1% that amount (less than $1000), are already imported for personal use.
PhRMA is trying to distance itself from Marathon, just like it did with Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turning Pharmaceuticals, when the price of Daraprim jumped from $13.50 to $750 a pill overnight. The CEO of Marathon, Jeff Aronin, however, sits on PhRMA’s Board of Directors! Last week, John Carroll of Endpoints News predicted last week that Aronin might be dropped. As of today, he’s still there.
Mr. Aronin wrote a letter to the Duchenne community that fully acknowledged American kids were already being treated with an unapproved foreign version of deflazacort. In his words: “As we all know, deflazacort was being used without FDA approval — and without ever having been approved anywhere in the world for Duchenne — by a very small group of patients (roughly 7 to 9 percent) in the Duchenne community who imported it from overseas.”
But does he support it? I mean, after all, the “score” for Marathon is that once it’s available for sale in the U.S., it will be purchased here. At least for the time being, this PhRMA board member does support it and seems to have no concern whatsoever whether the foreign version is safe and effective, not should he, since, like other medications, it was approved for safety and efficacy elsewhere. In noting that Marathon will “pause our commercialization” of Emflaza,” maintain its Expanded Access Patient Assistance Program, Aronin also state: “Patients currently receiving deflazacort from other sources may continue to have that option.” Damn right.
Is it hypocritical of PhRMA to diss Marathon? After all, brand drug companies jacked prices 130 times the inflation rate in 2015. Forty-five million Americans didn’t fill a prescription in 2016 due to cost. PhRMA will continue its practice of legal bribery and unleash a new, shiny PR campaign about life sciences and innovation — to prevent legislative and regulatory reforms that would lower drug prices. It’s going to take an unpredictable, unexpected populist wave of American anger at drug companies to bring their house down. In the meantime, maybe the people will take a hint from one PhRMA board member and import unapproved and lower cost medications.