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Utah Lawmakers Look North To Canada To Import Cheaper Prescription Drugs

Photo of Norm Thurston.
Cory Dinter for KUER
Rep. Norm Thurston's bill aims to allow the state to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. Vermon has already passed similar legislation.

Lawmakers ran out of time in a legislative committee on Thursday while discussing a controversial bill to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada to Utah.

Rep. Norm Thurston’s, R-Provo, bill titled Prescription Drug Importation Program would take the next step in setting up a formal importation pipeline for pharmaceuticals. The bill would direct the Utah Health Department to get federal approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to verify that it would be safe to import Canadian drugs and prove the program would have significant cost savings for Utah residents.

“We’re paying nine times what they’re paying for some of these drugs. Yet, we’re the best customer. We buy more drugs than any other country in the world,” Thurston said.

Legislative fiscal analysts estimated the program could save Utahns with state and private insurance $100 million per year in prescription drug costs. Last year, Thurston helped pass legislation that allows people insured through the state’s employee health insurance program, known as PEHP, to fly to San Diego and drive across the border to Tijuana, Mexico to buy cheaper medications. He said the PEHP “pharmacy tourism program” costs half as much as getting the same medications in the U.S.

“If I understand correctly, it’s cheaper for us to fly somebody to San Diego, put them up in a hotel there for three weeks, they go down to Tijuana, they get the drugs there than it is to get that same drug here?” Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salt Lake City, asked incredulously.

Critics of Thurston’s bill didn’t shy away from the hearing on Thursday, expressing concerns about the safety of foreign imports.

“The drugs that were meant for the United States from their point of origin in that facility are marked with our tracking and tracing technology. And if they’re meant for any other country they are not,” said Dana Malick, a lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, known as PhRMA.

Malick also warned that Canadian drug makers are already dealing with drug shortages and that it’s unclear whether they could supply additional pharmaceuticals to Utah.

In 2018 Vermont became the first state to pass a law allowing imported prescription drugs. More than a dozen other states have similar legislation in the works.

Thurston tried to reassure legislative committee members that getting FDA approval would ensure the program’s safety.

“I think the program would be created in a way that everybody in the supply chain knows, from the prescriber to the patient to the pharmacy, that this particular drug was part of the Canadian importation program,” Thurston said.

The proposal stalled in committee after members ran out of time before a vote. It will reappear in the Business and Labor Committee next week.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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