By Justin Wingerter
Gov. Jared Polis has signed legislation allowing for the import of Canadian prescription drugs, a change Democrats say could slash prices, if the federal government goes along with it.
Senate Bill 5 is one of several health care bills made into law this week that will require federal approval before the Colorado legislation can have an effect. However, the Canadian drug law has an apparent ally in President Donald Trump, who has spoken to Polis about importing drugs and praised a similar plan in Florida.
The law, signed Thursday, tasks the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing with creating a plan for safely importing Canadian drugs and presenting a proposal to U.S. Health and Human Services by September 2020.
"As a pharmacist, I know there are many Coloradans who are having to choose between feeding their families or the life-saving drugs they depend on," said Rep. Jaquez Lewis, a Boulder-area Democrat who sponsored the bill. "We've seen drug price increases of nearly 500 percent. That's unacceptable, and those prices are drowning patients."
The bill come with significant caveats. There's no guarantee Health and Human Services will approve the proposal Colorado crafts and there is skepticism among some that importing drugs will change drug prices. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has called it a gimmick.
The new law is expected to cost state coffers $3 million in the next two years. If approved by the federal government, Colorado's importation program will create a list of drugs that can be brought here safely and in a way that lowers costs for Coloradans. Vendors will be paid by the state to bring drugs to Colorado. Those drugs must meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards.
SB 5 made its final passage through the General Assembly on the second-to-last day of session. The House passed it 41-22 with a few Republicans joining all Democrats in favor. The Senate passed it 20-15 with Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, joining all Democrats in favor.
Colorado Republicans criticized the bill as an approach that will cost taxpayers millions of dollars and may not work.
"There's a reason why medications, or any product, are sold at different prices globally," said Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Parker Republican, on the Senate floor March 25. "To think that we can somehow do an end-around on this and gimmick the system -- candidly, I'm just skeptical."
Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, said Colorado should "give the middle finger to the FDA" and say "Colorado's going to do things our way" as it did on marijuana.
"The FDA and Big Pharma have far too much in common in how many of these decisions are made," Hill said.
"What this (bill) says is, we're going to take money from the people -- we're going to take millions of dollars -- and we're going to ask government to do a government study to petition the other government to see if government can solve this problem," Hill said. "Friends, government is the problem."
SB 5 was one of several bills Polis signed this week that may require federal approval. On Friday, he signed House Bill 1168, creating a plan for reinsurance, which helps insurance companies cover the costs of their most expensive patients to keep overall premiums lower.
Polis also signed House Bill 1004, concerning a government health insurance option that will compete with private insurance options on a health insurance exchange. The law tasks the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing with submitting a proposal to state lawmakers, who will then decide whether to create the public option and seek federal approval.
"Too many Coloradans have to make tough decisions when it comes to health care, but we've worked to provide them much needed relief, especially those who live in rural communities with few options, little competition, and high prices," Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat and prime sponsor of both the reinsurance bill and the public option bill, said in a release.
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