September 20, 2019
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Vermont lowered prescription drug costs. Maine can too

Rick Bowmer | AP
Rick Bowmer | AP

Families shouldn’t have to choose between life-saving medication and paying for groceries. Yet the cost of prescription drugs has gotten so far out of reach, that many Mainers — both young and old — are facing this very decision. In Vermont, we decided enough was enough and passed groundbreaking legislation to allow the wholesale importation of prescription drugs from Canada. Maine should follow our lead.

As American families and seniors struggle to pay for medication, it only makes sense to look to our northern neighbors, who don’t face these same challenges. That’s why I sponsored Vermont’s wholesale prescription drug importation bill.

To me, the issue is simple. The price of prescription drugs is, on average, 30 percent less in Canada than in the US, even for drugs manufactured in the US. The Canadian government has strict safety standards. Finally, the pharmaceutical industry in this country is operating with few checks on their power, which results in out-of-control prices. So let’s cut them out of the equation.

As elected officials, we all must stand up to drug corporations and rewrite the rules so that families and health care consumers come first. Nearly two-thirds of Mainers worry about not being able to afford the prescription drug or medicine they need. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies are reporting outrageous year-end profits.

When we first tried to pass this legislation in Vermont, pharmaceutical lobbyists used the same scare tactics they are using in Maine and other states across the country. They said that imported prescription drugs wouldn’t be safe but we know that’s just not true. There’s a reason that our own federal laws allow for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada with the approval of the Health and Human Services secretary. There’s a reason that the US government turns to importation of certain drugs during shortages. Even President Donald Trump’s now former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently said that “if an American consumer goes to Canada and walks into a brick-and-mortar Canadian pharmacy and buys a medicine, they’re getting a high-quality drug because of Canada’s first-class drug regulatory process.” The bottom line is that these medications are safe and affordable.

We didn’t listen to Big Pharma’s scare tactics. Vermonters are smarter than that. Mainers are cut from a similar cloth — I would know because I married into a Maine family 50 years ago. My bet (and my hope) is that you won’t buy these scare tactics either.

Pharmaceutical companies are terrified of losing their extreme profits. To them, prescription drug reform is about reduced profits. For us, prescription drug reform is about patients.

Many Americans are already getting their medicine in other countries on their own. Some estimates report as many as 19 million people. A wholesale importation program ensures people don’t have to cross the border to get medicine and ensures that they are getting medication from reputable sources.

Following the passage of my bill, Vermont’s Agency of Human Services found that importing Canadian drugs could save two insurers in our state — Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont, and MVP Health Care — between $1 million and $5 million annually. That means all consumers could benefit — both from affordable drugs and lower premiums.

Across the country, many other states are taking notice of the potential benefits and savings. Several states have explored similar legislation or at least a study of the Vermont proposal, such as Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Oregon and Virginia. Both Colorado and Florida have actually passed similar wholesale importation bills in recent weeks that have received support from both their governors and President Trump.

Mainers should be able to benefit from Canada’s lower prices too. Maine lawmakers have put together an impressive prescription drug reform package. I just hope the people of Maine won’t let Big Pharma stand in the way. Let’s make Maine the next state to pass this proposal.

Claire Ayer, a registered nurse, is a former Vermont state senator. She served as chair of the Vermont Senate’s Committee on Health and Welfare.


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