By Christine Sexton
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
May 7, 2019
TALLAHASSEE --- The battle over whether to allow state programs and Floridians to have access to prescription drugs imported from Canada has already been waged in the Legislature, but it is now shifting from the halls of Tallahassee to Washington, D.C.
One week after state lawmakers gave final approval to create international drug-importation programs, Gov. Ron DeSantis met Monday with President Donald Trump and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Trump during the meeting directed his administration to “explore additional options, including drug importation opportunities, to reduce drug prices in a safe way for Floridians,” according to a White House pool report.
Meanwhile, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a powerful industry group known as PhRMA, is gearing up to fight federal approval of the Florida plan.
“As we’ve warned time and time again, this reckless policy could have a devastating impact on patient safety,” association spokeswoman Priscilla VanderVeer said in a statement to The News Service of Florida. “It’s now up to officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services --- including at the Food and Drug Administration --- to reject any proposal from Florida to implement a state-run importation scheme because, simply put, there is no way to guarantee its safety.”
In remarks Saturday, DeSantis noted the heavy lobbying against the legislation and joked that “you couldn’t turn on a TV in Florida” without hearing about the issue.
“The whole program was really a stimulus in some ways for Tallahassee because I think PhRMA hired every lobbyist in town to try to lobby against this stuff,” DeSantis said. “But at the end of the day, we have now opened up a pathway for cheaper prescription drugs.”
Despite DeSantis’s support of the legislation, PhRMA has sent a letter to DeSantis requesting that he veto the bill.
The legislation (HB 19) would allow Florida to establish Canadian and international drug importation programs. The Canadian program would be under the auspices of the state Agency for Health Care Administration and would be focused on importing drugs for programs such as Medicaid, the Department of Corrections and county health departments. The Agency for Health Care Administration would be required to submit what is known as a “waiver” request to the federal government to move ahead with the program no later than July 2020.
The second program, an international drug importation program, would be geared to the broader state population and would be established under the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, played a key role in helping DeSantis push the importation plan through the Legislature.
Lowering health care costs has been one of Oliva’a priorities, and the importation bill is part of a series of health-care measures he shepherded through the 60-day legislative session.
But the importation plan was criticized nationally by conservatives. The Wall Street Journal, for example, ran an editorial criticizing Republicans for appropriating policies espoused by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator.
The plan was also criticized by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform.
In an interview with The News Service of Florida, Norquist called the approach a mistake.
“Price controls on drugs, like the Europeans do, to us is socialism. What this bill would do is import socialism,” Norquist said.
Oliva downplayed the criticism but acknowledged that it caught him off guard.
“I was surprised to hear it, but I'm not moved by it,” Oliva said. “I know conservative principles. I've followed them my whole life. If they have gone off course, then that’s a question for them."
DeSantis, meanwhile, has included U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in the effort to win federal approval.
In an interview with Politico Florida, Gaetz, whose district includes the western Panhandle, said he and DeSantis have talked privately with Trump several times to discuss the drug-importation plan.
“We’re like the Blues Brothers of drug importation,” Gaetz, told Politico. “We’re on a mission from God.”