Colorado lawmakers once again try to tackle the rising cost of prescription medications

Posted at 7:15 PM, Mar 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-09 09:31:30-05

DENVER — A bill to expand a prescription drug importation program in Colorado has cleared a House committee.

Senate Bill 21-123 would expand the program to allow Colorado to import medications from countries like Japan, France and Australia.

The bill is an extension of a law that passed in 2019 that allowed Colorado to ask the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to grant a waiver for medication imports from Canada.

Former President Trump had spoked in support of the plan on a national level. However, Colorado and several other states are still waiting for their waivers to be approved. The Biden Administration is currently reviewing the request.

The idea has also faced pushback from Canada, which announced in late November that it will limit bulk exports of medications in order to safeguard the country’s prescription medication supply.

“We are taking into account the fact that Canada is one-tenth of the size of the United States, and they were very worried about us getting most of their drugs, which we don’t want to happen,” said Sen. Joann Ginal.

Democrat Sen. Ginal was a co-sponsor on the 2019 bill and is also sponsoring the new iteration of the bill along with Republican Sen. Don Corum and others.

She says expanding this program to more countries will limit the impact any one country would face by exporting drugs to Colorado.

“There’s no way that we’re going to cause any shortages in any countries, so when you open it up to all these different countries for negotiation I do believe it’s a win-win situation, and we’re not going to short change any country of their prescription drugs," said Ginal.

Florida has taken a similar step and has already passed a bill to include other countries as well.

The Colorado bill already has bipartisan support and would cover the importation of roughly 50 of the most widely used brand name medications as well as specialty drugs and a few generics.

However, insulin would not be included in this importation program.

Supporters argue if this bill is approved and if the department of Health and Human Services eventually sign off on it, it will help families afford their medications.

Sen. Ginal believes importing the medications from Australia and France could save even more money in some instances than importing from Canada.

RxPlus Pharmacies, which represents a group of independently-owned pharmacies, supported the Canadian importation law with the safety measures.

“We’ve got to have that confidence that the medications are safe, effective and are what they say they are,” said Ky Davis, the executive director of RxPlus and the owner of Harris Pharmacy in Rocky Ford.

He would support the new iteration of the bill to include other countries so long as the safety measures also in place with those programs and the integrity of the supply chain is protected.

As a pharmacist, Davis says he knows firsthand how out of control drug prices are becoming in the U.S. He’s also seen the toll that the increasing costs are taking on his customers.

“There’s not a day that goes by the pharmacist don’t see patients who are making decisions about not getting drugs and for the most part they aren’t hard decisions when you’re looking at $700 a month for severe chronic conditions. That’s not a tough decision for people to make. It’s not affordable,” he said.

While he is supportive of the legislation, he knows there’s still a long road ahead before any medications would be imported to Colorado and he believes this legislation is a longshot.

“There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered before it’s in place,” Davis said.

If Colorado is successful, though, Davis believes other states would quickly follow suit.

During Monday’s committee hearing, opponents of the legislation argued that importing medications is not the way to deal with the rising cost of medications and these countries will be facing similar issues as Canada with supply and demand.

“The population of the U.S. is six times larger than France and 13 times larger than Australia and both of these countries are already experiencing significant drug shortages,” said Shabbir Safdar, the executive director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines. “They’re probably not going to be any happier than the Canadians were with this idea that we’re going to drain their supply to try to address our own systemic problems.

Safdar agreed that something needs to be done to lower the cost of prescription medications but said the state and country need to take a closer look at the role pharmacy benefit managers play in increasing the prices among other things.

SB-123 passed the Senate Health and Human Services committee on a 4-3 vote and will continue making its way through the legislative process.

While the importation bill was being debated, Governor Jared Polis and a group of Democrat lawmakers unveiled a bill to create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board.

The affordability board would be comprised of a nonpartisan group of volunteers who will research and review current medication costs before setting guardrails to try to reign in the prices.

“The board would also investigate and review when a drug company sharply increases the cost of a prescription drug,” said Isabel Cruz from the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.

The board would also be looking into capping the amount insurance companies, pharmacies and drug wholesalers can negotiate and pay for a specific high-cost drugs.

“Prescription drugs cost too much and Coloradans are sick and tired of being ripped off. This bill is an important step toward our goal of saving people money on health care,” said Governor Jared Polis.

Saving people money on health care has been a priority of the Polis administration even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Before this board can be formed, though, first lawmakers will need to debate it and approve it.