HHS proposes pathways for drug importation


Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have announced a new plan that they say would lay the foundation for safe importation of certain medications, with the aim of expanding drug access and lowering prescription costs for patients.

Medical supplies and packs of pills and capsules Jan Mika/iStockphoto

The action plan, unveiled July 31, outlines two pathways for drug importation from foreign markets. The first route would authorize states, wholesalers, or pharmacists to propose pilot demonstrations on how they would import drugs from Canada into the United States, provided these are versions of drugs already approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Similarly, a second pathway would allow manufacturers that sell in foreign countries the opportunity to import drugs that are versions of FDA-approved medications.

HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar II said the action plan is part of President Trump’s drug-pricing blueprint and is intended to combat the sky-high price tags on many prescription medications.

“President Trump has been clear: For too long American patients have been paying exorbitantly high prices for prescription drugs that are made available to other countries at lower prices,” Mr. Azar said in a statement. “[The] announcement outlines the pathways the administration intends to explore to allow safe importation of certain prescription drugs to lower prices and reduce out of pocket costs for American patients. This is the next important step in the administration’s work to end foreign freeloading and put American patients first.”

Health & Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II Wikimedia Commons/WWsgConnect/CC-SA 4.0

Alex M. Azar II

Under the first pathway, HHS would review plans submitted by states, pharmacists, or drugmakers that outline how the entities would import Health Canada–approved drugs that are in compliance with the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The importation would occur in a manner that assures the drug’s validity and meets the cost requirements of federal rule making, according to an HHS fact sheet.

Demonstration projects would be time-limited and require regular reporting to ensure safety and cost conditions are being met.

Under the second pathway, manufacturers of FDA-approved drug products would be able to import versions of those drugs that they sell in foreign countries through a special process to be outlined by the agency. As part of the process, drugmakers would need to establish that the foreign version is the same as the U.S. version. The FDA would then allow the drug to be labeled for sale in the U.S. and imported, according to the fact sheet. HHS officials said they believe that manufacturers would use this pathway to offer U.S. patients lower-cost versions of their drugs and the medications affected could potentially include those used to treat diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disorders, and cancer.

“In recent years, multiple manufacturers have stated (either publicly or in statements to the Administration) that they wanted to offer lower cost versions but could not readily do so because they were locked into contracts with other parties in the supply chain,” HHS officials stated in the fact sheet. “This pathway would highlight an opportunity for manufacturers to use importation to offer lower-cost versions of their drugs.”

HHS plans to introduce its action plan through a formal notice of proposed rulemaking, which has not yet been finalized. Some elements of the final proposal may differ from its initial descriptions to reflect further consideration of the relevant issues, the agency noted.

Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD, said the agency has a unique role to play in promoting competition that can help reduce drug prices and improve access to medicine for Americans.

“Driving down drug prices requires a comprehensive approach and we must continue to look at all innovative solutions to this challenge,” Dr. Sharpless said in a statement. “[The] proposal is the result of the hard work by the dedicated staff of the FDA, in close collaboration with HHS and the White House, to identify potential pathways we can pursue to support the safe importation of certain prescription drugs.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, said the administration’s proposal sounds promising as long as the plan ensures the safety and efficacy of imported medications.

“This is the first administration to take concrete steps to allow importation of prescription drugs to reduce their cost and I welcome it,” Sen. Alexander said in a statement. “The key for me is whether this plan preserves the Food and Drug Administration’s gold standard for safety and effectiveness. Millions of Americans every day buy prescription drugs relying on the FDA’s guarantee of quality.”

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