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Utah House passes bill to import cost-saving pharmaceutical drugs from Canada

A screenshot of the political action page on Pfizer's website speaking against HB163, which would allow drugs to be imported from Canada.
A screenshot of the political action page on Pfizer's website speaking against HB163, which would allow drugs to be imported from Canada.
Norm Thurston

SALT LAKE CITY — House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, called the idea that Utahns can find cheaper drugs by importing them from another country a "snipe hunt."

But Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, is sponsoring a bill that he says would do just that.

HB163 would create a program and reporting requirements for importing prescription drugs. The bill also would require pharmaceutical manufacturers to provide the state with pricing for prescription drugs, and modify the Utah Antitrust Act to make certain anti-competitive activities illegal.

Thurston thanked his colleagues for the conversation following debate on the House floor last week "because it just shows how many of our lobbyists are very effective at feeding misinformation all the way through to the House floor."

After taking out a provision that would require transparency from pharmaceutical companies about price hikes and a heated debate, the House passed an amended version of HB163 that would begin a process for Utah to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

The Utah House voted 39-31, passing HB163 by a slim majority. The bill now moves to the Senate for that body's consideration.

There is already a provision in U.S. code specifically for proposals to import wholesale pharmaceutical drugs from Canada. It requires a state to draft and submit a plan to the secretary of Health and Human Services for approval.

Thurston said that no state has submitted such a proposal before.

HB163 directs the Utah Department of Health to draft that plan and seek approval. If it does not get federal approval, the Legislature would then study how to draft a plan that would pass, under the bill.

Thurston later told the Deseret News that lawmakers in the House were getting a deluge of emails from the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer attacking HB163, explaining his comments about lobbyists on the House floor.

Thurston sent an email to his colleagues with a link to the political action page on Pfizer's website, showing them where the emails were coming from and noting that almost nothing in the website's description of HB163 was true.

"Don't fall for their tactics," Thurston wrote to his colleagues. "The proposal in this bill is to generate a safe program to import safe drugs at lower prices. If it can be done safely, we won't submit an application, and the (secretary of Health and Human Services) will only approve our application when they are convinced it can be done safely."

Many of the objections on the Utah House floor to HB163 resembled the Pfizer emails, including the underlying assertion that Canadian drugs would be less safe. Thurston called these objections "hogwash."

"We're talking about the exact same drugs that we're buying in our pharmacies today produced by the same manufacturers in the same plants," he said. "The idea that somehow they would be unsafe, when they are the exact same drugs, is just ridiculous."

Thurston said the objections to his bill were trying to conflate personal importation with wholesale importation. He said personal importation is not safe because no one knows where those drugs have been or how they were made, "but if you do it wholesale, then you have legitimate, government-approved, FDA-overseen organizations involved in making sure those drugs came from FDA-approved facilities. There's somebody watching out for you as a consumer."

The main difference between wholesale drugs in America and Canada is "a different conveyor belt," he said.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' name came up on the floor of the House during debate of HB163. Sanders tried to introduce similar legislation in Congress in January 2017 to get the ball rolling to import wholesale pharmaceutical drugs from Canada. The legislation failed in the Senate, but not before getting yes votes from both sides of the aisle, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Thurston denied basing his legislation on anything he might have seen from Sanders.

The runaway cost of pharmaceutical drugs in the United States was an issue tackled by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the presidential campaign trail in 2016. Thurston urged his colleagues to support HB163 because the Trump administration might be open to trying new things.

So far in 2018, there have been 87 bills filed in 34 states seeking to save money on prescription drugs in some form, according to the nonpartisan National Academy for State Health Policy. Six states are considering bills that would allow drugs to be imported from Canada, where they cost on average 30 percent less than in the U.S.