Let's Tap the Brakes When It Comes to Drug Reimportation
Bureaucrats at the FDA recently announced a "work group" aimed at exploring a top Bernie Sanders proposal to open up U.S. markets to drug reimportation. It's hard to argue that this is the best use of our resources at a time when drugs can claim a death toll of 800 people per week, not to mention millions more Americans who are addicted to opioid-style drugs.
In past years, FDA commissioner, Scott Gottlieb has said that such "reimportation" proposals pose serious risks to consumer safety. His boss, Health and Human Services Sec. Alex Azar, recently called the Sanders proposal now under study at FDA a "gimmick."
At issue is the idea of opening foreign drug markets to Americans as a means of lowering prices. Conservatives have long opposed the policy because foreign drug prices are artificially low due to government price controls, and "imports" from these countries would mean importing their price controls. The argument has since improved. In recent years former FDA officials along with top law enforcement types have sounded the alarm that reimportation also invites unsafe knockoffs into the U.S. What was an economic stance is increasingly about life and death.
Despite this, Sanders and other advocates have continued to pursue the policy, touting it as a means of quickly securing lower prices, with the not-so-hidden advantage of weakening the U.S. drug sector. The latter exists as a key impediment to the left's payer dreams.
Against this backdrop, Gottlieb announced July 19 the formation of a "new work group to explore various policy frameworks that, through the exercise of enforcement discretion or otherwise, would involve the importation of drugs."
The Washington Post described the move as "cracking the door open" to a broader importation policy. In the meantime, the group's mission also encountered criticism from the right that it could create an essentially arbitrary decision by bureaucrats over whether to open up foreign drug markets for specific drugs, resulting in a politicized marketplace where unelected officials pick winners and losers, along with a brand new venue for lobbying and potential corruption.
The announcement suffered from unfortunate timing, coming just after law enforcement officials shuttered an online Canadian pharmacy that had peddled placebo pills to cancer patients.
The website, CanadaDrugs.com, was shut down by federal law enforcement officials and its domain name seized shortly before Gottlieb embarked on a new study for opening foreign drug markets. The site was fined $34 million for selling cancer pills with no active ingredient to thousands of patients. By the way, should we ask where that $34 million went? Counterfeit drugs are an increasing problem, and former FDA commissioners, appointed by presidents of both parties, have warned that opening the floodgates to foreign drugs would make the problem dramatically worse.
Law enforcement officials have also warned that importation would overwhelm the enforcement capacity of border officials, allowing criminals to smuggle in illegal narcotics packaged as pharmaceutical drugs nearly unfettered. In recent years, police have uncovered a series of drug smuggling and production rings in Canada with disturbingly high production capacity, suggesting that the country's role in the international trade for fentanyl and other highly potent opioids has been significantly under appreciated.
The concerns are something that Gottlieb himself has raised in the past. For example, in a 2005 address while he was serving as a senior FDA appointee in the Bush administration, Gottlieb said it's impossible to open the floodgates to foreign drug imports without cutting corners on safety.
"All of these schemes are going to weaken our controls," Gottlieb wrote, adding that the debate is really "a question of how much safety you want to demand, and how many corners you are willing to cut."
But for those with an ideological commitment to price controls, none of these warnings prompted a change of heart towards importation policy. Sanders has repeatedly declined to rescind his importation bill, for example, brushing off concerns even as the opioid epidemic rages in his home state.
It's unclear whether any Sanders acolytes "buried" in the FDA woodwork are driving a study of something the FDA commissioners knows will put Americans in danger, but Gottlieb should keep a sharp eye on the group. And we voters must insist on a better result from our government. The bucks stops with them. They helped to create and sustain this problem, this cannot be denied.
Our children, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers are suffering, and the answer is not keeping them addicted or adding to Americans becoming addicted by making the drugs cheaper. Why don't we just say we're too busy saving lives and helping our families in pain to waste our time on a study to import more drugs for less?