Harrop: Importing cheap drugs from Canada not going to happen

If Senate Republicans won’t let Medicaid negotiate prices, why is it OK to let Canada do it for us?

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

Heavens, no. We don’t want the U.S. government to negotiate drug prices for Americans. That would be socialism, conservatives keep saying. So let’s have the Canadian government do it for us.

President Trump’s latest plan for reducing the outrageous prices Americans pay for their prescriptions is to let states import cheaper drugs from Canada. Past proposals to tie U.S. drug prices to other countries’ prices have gone nowhere. And nowhere is where this one will go.

Big Pharma doesn’t want to lose its captive market of American suckers. Do you really think that Alex Azar, Trump’s secretary of health and human services and a former top executive at Eli Lilly and Co., is going to let the American consumer off the hook?

Azar has said that “this administration does not believe in … setting prices for drugs by government fiat.” How does he think Canada does it? He knows, of course, that nearly every advanced country demands reasonable drug prices, but drugmakers charge whatever they can get out of desperate Americans.

Thus, we have the pathetic spectacle of our diabetics taking buses to Canada to buy insulin for $30 a vial; a tenth (!) of the $300 they pay at home. The much-advertised drug Humira, for treating psoriatic arthritis, costs an average $822 in Switzerland and $2,669 here.

By the way, insulin is excluded from Trump’s Canada proposal. So is Humira, because it is a biologic, a drug made from living organisms.

In any event, Canada says it will not become the supplier of drugs for the United States. Canada’s population is one-ninth ours, and its drug supply is limited. A huge boost in demand would drive up prices for Canadians.

We have to keep asking why Canada should be doing the job of the U.S. government. And so much for the great deal-maker in chief.

Some Americans may believe that drugmakers are going to sell more product to Canada so Americans can pay less for their wares. People believe a lot of things. As long as the GOP controls most of Washington, enormous profits will flow Big Pharma’s way.

For example, the Medicare drug benefit, written by Republican lawmakers, forbids Medicare from negotiating drug prices. The private insurers managing the drug benefits do put some brakes on what’s charged, but they don’t have the bargaining power of Medicare with its nearly 60 million beneficiaries.

The Department of Veterans Affairs does directly negotiate drug prices. If Medicare Part D were to pay prices similar to what the VA pays, Medicare would have saved $14 billion in 2016 alone, according to an analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Candidate Trump vowed to negotiate on Medicare drug prices. Whether he was ever serious about it we have no idea.

The Democratic-run House just passed legislation that would let Medicare bargain for better prices. It has zero chance of getting through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Why doesn’t the almighty Trump use his famous powers of intimidation to whip Republican lawmakers into getting behind some plan to stop the drug industry’s extortion racket? It comes down to “our price or your life.”

Instead, Trump is blubbering about “freeloading” foreigners taking advantage of the American people. Or, as Azar put it, “The American senior and the American patient have been too long been asked to overpay for drugs to subsidize the socialist systems of Europe.”

Don’t you love his use of the passive tense? Americans haven’t been “asked” anything. They’ve been forced by Azar’s industry. Furthermore, if he and Trump object to other countries enjoying better deals, why are they backing a plan that would let Canada share its lower prices with Americans?

Because it’s not going to happen.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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