Floridians could gain access to cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and other foreign countries under legislation approved by a state House committee Monday amid concern it could open the door to subpar and even dangerous medications.
The bill that cleared the House Appropriations Committee is aimed at tackling soaring U.S. prescription drug prices many times higher than in other countries. The proposal, a priority for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, would need federal approval to take effect.
The main sponsor, Republican Rep. Tom Leek of Daytona Beach, said the proposal would benefit Florida consumers by bringing down the cost of prescription drugs without sacrificing safety. Leek said imported drugs would have to meet strict U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards and noted that 80 percent of drug ingredients used in the U.S. are foreign-made now.
"The drugs that would come in through this program must be — must be — FDA approved and must meet the safety standards of every other drug that's sold in the U.S. today," Leek told the committee. "It would significantly lower the cost of prescription drugs. Put people over profit."
According to a committee staff analysis, the U.S. spends about $333 billion annually on prescription drugs, or about $10,739 per person. U.S. drug prices are between 30 to 190 percent more than in other developed countries, the analysis found.
Opponents say the measure could lead to importation of risky counterfeit or contaminated drugs, unwittingly expose people to less effective medications, create a drug "black market" run by unscrupulous players and possibly prove costly to oversee and regulate.
A pharmaceutical and medical industry group, Partnership for Safe Medicines, is among those opponents. George Karavetsos, a former FDA enforcement official and Miami ex-federal prosecutor now representing the group, warned about some of the potential pitfalls.
"This importation program cannot be made safe," Karavetsos said. "People will be severely injured and even die."
Another opponent, Carrie Luther of Santa Cruz, California, told the panel that her 29-year-old son died in 2015 after taking a quarter of a Xanax tablet that he did not know contained the powerful opioid fentanyl, which has killed thousands of people in the U.S. in recent years.
"People have no idea about the extent of these dangers. It's going to happen," she said. "Proposals like this bring in unintended consequences. There's no room for errors, there are no second chances."
There are also questions about whether Canada would permit its lower-cost drugs to be sold in the U.S. in the first place and how much a new regulatory framework for foreign drugs might cost Florida taxpayers.
The bill would actually create two programs: one for state-funded entities such as Medicaid and the prison system and another in which the imported drugs would be sold directly to consumers through pharmacies. The second program faces more federal government hurdles in order to become law.
Vermont last year became the first state in the nation to enact a prescription-drug importation law. The Green Mountain State is still developing its plan, and it hasn't yet submitted an application to the federal health agency.
DeSantis has met with President Donald Trump to gain administration backing for his state's plan, which now heads for another House committee vote before it would be ready for floor consideration.
"We have a chance to win one for the consumer," said Leek, the bill's sponsor.