The Vermont Senate Committee on Health and Welfare has given its unanimous approval to legislation designed to save Vermont consumers and state government programs millions of dollars in prescription drug costs.
The bill uses a provision of the Affordable Care Act that allows individual states to seek a waiver from the federal government to buy prescription drugs from Canada.
It’s done by creating a state entity that acts as a wholesaler that would purchase the most expensive and most popular drugs at much lower Canadian prices.
This new government organization would then distribute the drugs through pharmacies and insurance companies.
The Vermont plan is modeled after a similar program being developed by the state of Utah.
Addison Sen. Claire Ayer, the chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, did some research to see how much money could be saved.
"We went on a Canadian website and compared them," said Ayer. "And the difference is astonishing — less than a half, usually around a third, of the price."
Caitlin Carroll — the director of public affairs at PhRMA, the national pharmaceutical organization in Washington, D.C. — says the bill poses safety risks for consumers.
"It's a myth that purchasing prescription drugs from Canadian pharmacies is a safe alternative to FDA-approved medicine,” said Carroll. “In fact, medicine sold through Canadian websites can originate anywhere, and the Canadian government itself does not take responsibility for inspecting the legitimacy of prescription medicine shipped to the United States."
But Ayer isn't buying the public safety health risk argument.
"I would have to say that that would be called, in medical terms, 'baloney' — because ... a good chunk of the drugs that are sold in Canada were made in the United States, and a good chunk of the ingredients and so on for different kinds of drugs go back and forth," said Ayer.
Mike Fisher, the state's health care advocate, strongly supports the legislation.
"The cost of prescription drugs is a real impact on Vermonters being able to get the care they need,” said Fisher. “The cost of pharmaceuticals is often a significant factor both in insurance rates and in out-of-pocket costs for Vermonters."
The Scott administration is taking a close look at the bill.
"Hey, if that works, great — but let's really, really work on this idea to make sure that it actually does work and doesn't affect any of the pricing programs or the access to prescription drugs we have now," said Al Gobeille, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services.
The legislation will be reviewed by several other Senate committees before it comes to the Senate floor for a vote.