Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Florida’s three prescription drug import programs into law Tuesday, celebrating a victory over a lobbying blitz by “Big Pharma” but acknowledging it won’t matter without federal approval.
“This is just the beginning. This is the start of a very important process that requires approval by the federal government,” he said. “I’ve already met with the President since the bill passed and he is in favor of doing whatever we can” to lower prescription drug costs.
DeSantis said he will speak again with President Donald Trump about the programs next week.
“We envision [federal approval] happening by this time next year,” he said. “I think the President is going to want to approve whatever we do.”
Framed by five legislators, including House Speaker Jose Oliva and bill sponsor Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, DeSantis signed House Bill 19 in The Villages, the central Florida retirement community where he introduced the programs as legislative priorities.
“We were here in February and we’ve crossed the first big hurdle,” he said. “American consumers can be put first for a change.”
HB 19 authorizes the state to create three prescription drug importation programs and secure federal authorization for them by July 2020:
• the Canadian Prescription Drug Importation Program managed by the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration [AHCA];
• the International Prescription Drug Importation Program managed by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation [DBPR];
• A pilot program run by the Florida Department of Health and DBPR.
Under HB 19, the AHCA will contract with a vendor to “identify Canadian suppliers in compliance with that country’s regulations.”
Florida lawmakers adopted the programs despite unanswered questions, such as how the state will secure a “vendor,” and if it would be allowed by Canadian officials and Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
Those vagaries, as well as fears over counterfeit, contaminated and ineffective drugs, were among issues raised by the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America [PhRMA], ‘Big Pharma’s’ lobbying wing, which aggressively lobbied against the programs during the legislative session, flooding TVs with ads about counterfeit drugs and claiming the programs won’t save consumers money.
The “real deal” is “Big Pharma got scared,” Bean said. “They hired so many lobbyists in Tallahassee. They were so scared, they created all these organizations to run TV ads to scare you. They tried to scare you because they love that you pay the highest drug prices on the planet.”
Bean and Oliva praised DeSantis for remaining resolute.
The new governor faced down “the greatest force – ‘Big Pharma,’” Oliva said. “Not once did he shake. Now we have a chance to shift the paradigm. We have real momentum. It could not be done without the leadership of a strong executive.”
Actually, DeSantis said, it was Oliva’s idea.
“I knew prescription drugs were an issue but I didn’t know what we could do about it at the state level,” he said. “The Speaker suggested we could find a pathway” through a provision in the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act that allows for state drug importation programs.
Now, the battle shifts to Washington, where ‘Big Pharma’ has more lobbying clout and there is “internal resistance” within the HHS and FDA, DeSantis said.
“There are a lot of people in the administration who don’t want to do this. Unfortunately for them, the President calls the shots,” he said. “We’re going to stay on it so it’s not dragged out.”
“We have a ways to go,” Bean said. “Gov. DeSantis still has some work to do and get his good friend, Donald J. Trump, to say we’re not going to pay the highest drug prices in the world.”
Not everyone is optimistic about the state’s prospects.
During Florida Democratic Party’s Leadership Blue Conference in Orlando, Florida U.S. Rep Donna Shalala, D-Miami, a former HHS Secretary in the Clinton administration, called it “the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s just messaging.”
“No HHS Secretary has ever approved the importation of drugs because of safety,” she said Saturday. “The law is written this way: The HHS Secretary … has to certify it is safe to do importation. And so, I would be very surprised if Secretary Azar was willing to do that” without the FDA commissioner, National Institutes of Health Director and Surgeon General all agreeing.
Vermont became the first state to adopt a state program to import prescription drugs, primarily from Canada, in 2018. It also awaits federal approval.
By early June, according to Congressional Quarterly/Fiscal Note, lawmakers in 16 states had considered at least 28 drug import bills with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signing a bill to create a prescription drug importation program from Canada on May 16.