DENVER — The Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing (HCPF) announced a new partnership with three groups as it works to set up a system to import high-cost prescription medications from Canada.
“We have signed the contracts with partners that will help us lay the foundation and the pathways in order to import drugs from Canada," said HCPF executive director Kim Bimestefer.
The effort to begin importing medications from Canada began in earnest in 2019 when state legislators passed a law to allow the state to begin building the program. Since then, much of the work has happened behind the scenes, along with some more legislative work.
Then Thursday, the state announced a new partnership with three companies — AdiraMedica, Premier Pharmaceuticals and Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Safety.
AdiraMedica LLC is a U.S. wholesaler with a subsidiary in Canada that will act as the state’s foreign seller and the go-between with manufacturers to purchase the medications. Premier Pharmaceuticals LLC, meanwhile, will serve as Colorado’s importer and primary distributor once the medications come into the country. It will be responsible for selling the medications to pharmacies. The third group, Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Safety, will be responsible for all adverse event reporting and will respond to consumer inquiries on the safety aspects of the medications.
“While setting up a new marketplace is challenging, I think we've done a really good job of setting up the infrastructure that's needed to supply lower cost medications,” said Lauren Reyeley, who is leading HCPF’s drug importation program.
The program is not expected to benefit those on Medicaid, since they already see significant savings on prescription costs with rebates. The newly signed Inflation Reduction Act, meanwhile, will help with negotiating lower prices for Medicare recipients for high-cost drugs. It also requires more rebates to be offered to Medicare recipients.
The state’s importation program, on the other hand, would mainly benefit employers and those on private insurance with lower cost medications.
The goal would be to target commonly used medications for people with chronic conditions first. However, the department is still in the process of deciding which medications it wants to import first. Officials are hoping to have a list within the next three to six months.
“It's going to put patients before profits, and that's going to make sure we do the right thing to bring the right drugs, FDA approved drugs, through an FDA approved a system with extra checks to preserve quality,” said Bimestefer.
Reveley says the department’s initial analysis of medications estimates that employers could save an average of 60% on imported drugs. They are hoping to begin importing medications by late 2023. Before that, though, the state still needs to fill out and submit an application with the federal government and get its approval.
The idea has faced considerable pushback from the pharmaceutical industry and others who have expressed concerns about the safety aspects of the importation program and the potential for a dangerous substance to get through the system. Nevertheless, state officials have trudged forward with the idea, saying the safety concerns expressed by pharmaceutical groups are more of a delay tactic than anything.
“I think we should all expect if we're going to disrupt the status quo, there are those organizations that don't want us to do that, that they like exactly how the revenues are flowing right now. But Colorado's families deserve better,” Bimestefer said.
For prescription medication patients like Rachel Wall, this importation program couldn’t come soon enough. Wall was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease when she was 25-years-old, and now relies on four regular, monthly medications to help with her symptoms.
“I end up paying, you know, $250 for a one month supply, and that's with insurance,” she said. “These are things that have been around for such a long time, and you still end up paying just astronomically high prices for these medications that you can't do without.”
Wall’s insurance covers the majority of three of the medications, but her inhaler is the most expensive monthly purchase.
“It is a significant amount, and it plays into a lot of decisions, including what job you have or not and how many hours you work,” she said.
Like many prescription medication patients, Wall has tried things like rebates, pharmacy shopping or using a generic or similar medication to cut down on costs. She’s even spaced out her doses to make the medication last longer.
She’s excited about the prospect of having some of her medications imported at a cheaper price one day.
“For me, it would mean, obviously, a better quality of life with being able to take my medications consistently as prescribed, but quality of life and not having to agonize over that budget of medication,” Wall said.
Even if the medications begin to be imported by 2023, however, it will still be some time before patients have access to them and are able to see any real savings.