Letting Americans buy prescription drugs from foreign countries like Canada would save taxpayers over $6.8 billion over 10 years, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The report examined Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act, which was unveiled in February. It has made its way to the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The bill would allow Americans to purchase drugs from certified foreign sellers approved by the U.S. government as meeting certain safety standards. Under current law, drug makers can manufacture prescription drugs outside the country and then import them in to the U.S., where they often cost much more than they would elsewhere. That's because under U.S. law, Medicaid can't negotiate drug prices to get a better deal for Americans, and consumers and drug wholesalers aren't allowed to import cheaper drugs from foreign countries.
The bill currently has 21 co-sponsors, including 20 Democrats and Sen. Angus King (I-ME).
"Drug prices, especially brand name medications still under patent are much lower in Canada and other countries," said Jodi Dart, executive director of Prescription Justice.
A recent study by pharmacychecker.com found that brand name drug prices are about 70 percent lower on average in Canada, and up to 97 percent lower in other countries.
Sanders had previously introduced a budget amendment with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in January, which also aimed to let Americans purchase cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. The amendment had support from 13 Republicans, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY), but the amendment was blocked by a group of Democrats who were concerned the amendment would allow unsafe drugs across the border.
Lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry have been fighting the legislation tooth and nail. So far this year, the pharmaceutical and health industry has spent more than $144 million lobbying members of Congress, according to spending data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the first quarter of 2017, big pharma spent $78 million on lobbying -- a 14 percent increase from the same time last year. According to the data, the pharmaceutical industry is on pace to spend as much on lobbying this year as it did in 2016, an election year.
The biggest spender this year has been the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing drug companies. So far, the group has spent over $14 million this year on lobbying.
Although importing drugs would help lower costs for Americans, Dart says it should be a short term solution.
"Importation is a step in the right direction, but it's not a panacea," she said. "What we would like to see is Congress end the ban on Medicare negotiating drug prices and stop letting pharmaceutical companies engage in anti-competitive practices that would prevent lower cost medications from coming to market. If the drug prices come down here, domestically, then they can stop worrying about importation."
On Monday, Sanders also took another step toward securing better drug prices for Americans by proposing a rule that would require drug companies to charge fair prices for medications developed using taxpayer-funded research.
The rule is Sanders' latest push to stop the Department of Defense from awarding French drugmaker Sanofi Pasteur an exclusive license to manufacture a Zika vaccine developed by the U.S. Army.
"Americans should not be forced to pay the highest prices in the world for a vaccine we spent more than $1 billion to help develop," Sanders said in a statement.