Sanders has been pushing for drug importation for years, but his renewed effort comes as some Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have signaled an openness to taking on the pharmaceutical industry.
This bipartisan focus has been spurred, in part, by the recent skyrocketing prices of a number of lifesaving drugs. The price hike of the EpiPen, which has more than quintupled in cost since 2004, has sparked the most outrage. Evzio, an anti-opioid overdose drug injector, has increased more than sixfold in price over the last two years, leading U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and other Democrats to demand answers from its maker in February.
American drug prices are among the highest in the world, largely because most other governments negotiate drug prices down. A 2015 study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 1 in 10 Americans can’t afford their prescription drugs.
“Millions of our people are getting sicker because they don’t have the medicine that they need,” Sanders said in a news conference Tuesday. “Some end up in emergency rooms at great cost, and others, frankly, lose their lives.”
“The goal of the pharmaceutical industry is to make as much profit as they can and to hell with the needs of the American people,” he added.
The Sanders bill would direct Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to develop regulations allowing pharmacies, wholesalers and individuals to gain access to Canadian drugs produced in accordance with FDA guidelines. All imported medicines would be required to have the same active ingredients and strength as current products in American pharmacies.
After two years of Canadian importation, additional countries that meet U.S. prescription standards would become eligible for importation.
The health secretary would be able to suspend importation if violations are discovered, such as the selling of counterfeit drugs. The bill creates strict penalties for those caught selling adulterated medicines, including up to 10 years in jail.
The Senate bill, called the Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act, has attracted more than a dozen Democratic boosters, and companion legislation was introduced in the House by Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas.
Though no Republicans have come on as co-sponsors, 12 Republicans voted for a largely symbolic budget amendment from Sanders earlier this session that would have allowed for drug importation. Sanders said Tuesday he hoped to announce Republican supporters soon, and he named Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as a potential ally of the bill.
Sanders said that although he was hopeful the bill would pass, the political power of pharmaceutical companies is unrivaled.
“These are people who never lose,” Sanders said. “These are people today who have 1,400 well-paid lobbyists right here, in the nation’s capital, including many former members, Democrats and Republicans from Congress. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.”
It appears the industry has already moderated Trump’s position on lowering drug prices. After a meeting with pharmaceutical executives in late January, Trump appeared to abandon his promise to use the bargaining power of Medicare to lower costs.
“I’ll oppose anything that makes it harder for smaller, younger companies to take the risk of bringing their product to a vibrantly competitive market,” Trump said after a closed-door meeting with the executives. “That includes price-fixing by the biggest dog in the market, Medicare, which is what’s happening.”
Cummings is scheduled to meet next week with Trump to discuss, among other things, the importation drug bill. In the news conference Tuesday, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., urged Trump to translate his rhetoric into action.
“It’s time for him to put up or shut up,” Booker said. “This bill is one of the things that can provide Americans cheaper access to drugs. It is time for him to join with us or confess his lies to the American people.”