Don't Ignore the Steady Drumbeat of Drug Importation

We are living during a time in which we are witnessing the possibilities of curative medications and their significant improvement on patient outcomes. However, these breakthroughs have come at the price of higher-cost medications, leading to a vigorous debate about the value of improved outcomes in terms of time and spending.

One way that policymakers and industry insiders have constantly considered to lower drug prices has been through importation. This would theoretically lower drug prices by allowing market players from outside the United States to compete. Although this idea is intriguing, there undoubtedly are obstacles, such as safety concerns and federal law. However, this has not stopped the recent activity we have seen in Congress and on the state level.

Let’s consider the latest policy ideas on the subject of importation.

First, let’s examine the current law for importation, as this subject depends on whether a medication is manufactured as an unapproved drug versus an unapproved drug imported via a consumer. The FDA’s enforcement on unapproved medications intended for commercial use is evident within its guidance. The United States Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits interstate shipment of unapproved new drugs, including importation. The act allows the FDA to refuse admission of any drug that “appears” to be unapproved, which forces the importer to prove the desired drug has been approved by the FDA or be subject to FDA enforcement actions.1

However, the FDA’s viewpoint on personal importation of unapproved drugs is different, with several factors considered by agency personnel when determining whether to enforce the act or take action against the importer.

The FDA will allow importation of a drug when its intended use is unapproved for a serious condition that does not have an effective treatment available domestically through commercial or clinical means, there is no known commercialization or promotion to US residents by distributors of the drug, the drug is not considered to pose an unreasonable risk, and the individual seeking to import the drug affirms in writing that it is for personal use—typically in quantities under a 3-month supply—and provides the name and address of the US-licensed doctor responsible for treatment or proof that the drug is for the continuation of a therapy that began in a foreign region.

Thus, although the FDA does have preferences on commercial versus personal importation of unapproved prescription drugs, the law is flexible on allowing for certain situations.

Recently, the FDA weighed in on the idea of importation. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, who has been very aggressive in implementing new policies in an attempt to lower costs across the supply chain, last year announced a new working group that would examine importation. Gottlieb’s approach is to consider importation through the lens of alleviating drug shortages from single-source manufacturers.

“We want to examine whether, under these narrow conditions, the additional market competition from the short-term importation of foreign versions of the drug may complement the FDA’s current efforts and help meet near-term patient need in the [United States] until new competition is able to enter the domestic market,” Gottlieb wrote in a statement on the FDA website in July 2018. “To pursue these considerations, we’re forming a work group to explore various policy frameworks that, through the exercise of enforcement discretion or otherwise, would involve the importation of drugs under circumstances that meet these criteria and that would be suitable substitutes for the FDA-approved version of the medically necessary drugs. We will consider whether and how the foreign versions of these medicines can be imported with adequate assurances of safety and effectiveness.”2

Gottlieb added that a policy involving importing drugs would be a temporary measure until adequate competition enters these categories and any resulting policy would need to be structured to eliminate the risk of counterfeit or unsafe drugs entering the US supply chain.

Congress already has a few initiatives on importation:
  • The Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act would instruct the HHS secretary to issue regulations allowing wholesalers, licensed US pharmacies, and individuals to import qualifying prescription drugs manufactured at FDA-inspected facilities from licensed Canadian sellers. After 2 years, the secretary would have the authority to permit importation from countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that meet specified statutory or regulatory standards that are comparable to US standards. The bill would not permit importation of controlled substances, anesthetic drugs inhaled during surgery, or compounded drugs.
  • The Safe and Affordable Drugs from Canada Act would permit the importation of prescription drugs from approved pharmacies in Canada.
  • If enacted, HR 447 would allow for the importation of affordable and safe drugs by wholesale distributors, pharmacies, and individuals.


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