MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont is attempting to create a first-in-the-nation program to allow the wholesale importation of prescription drugs from Canada, but first the state needs approval from skeptical White House officials.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill Wednesday that passed with overwhelming support from Vermont's three political parties. It's the latest move in an attempt to battle rising drug prices, which the bill's supporters say place a large financial burden on both individuals and state agencies.
"I'm in favor of doing whatever we can do to reduce cost for Vermonters," Scott said in a news conference Wednesday.
The state would need the approval of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is unclear how the Trump administration will come down on the matter. On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump said that Canadian drug importation could be used to battle rising prices, but HHS Secretary Alex Azar has said that importation would not solve the problem.
"You can't improve competition and choice in our drug markets with gimmicks like these," Azar said in speech Wednesday.
A spokesperson for HHS pointed to Azar's speech when asked whether the department would grant the waiver.
Vermont Sen. Claire Ayer, a Democrat from Addison and one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, said she was disappointed by Azar's comments but is optimistic that the program can get the needed approval. She noted that their program has the support of the entire Vermont congressional delegation and said she hopes Trump is willing to try something new to help the state's residents.
"It could be one of those times President Trump shows he can make a deal," Ayer said.
The new law was based on model legislation from the National Academy for State Health Policy. The organization said that Vermont is one of nine states that considered similar legislation this year. The state is expected to work with officials from the organization going forward in the federal approval process.
"States have been in the lead to inform the federal debate and Vermont has taken an important step," said Executive Director Trish Riley.
Riley also noted that the wholesale importation program differs from past attempts to provide American consumers with Canadian pharmaceuticals. Vermont was previously a member of the Illinois "ISaveRx" program that set up a marketplace for personal importation. The program ran into repeated issues with American and Canadian regulators before being ended in 2009.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade group for drugmakers, expressed concerns over patient safety.
"It is highly irresponsible for Vermont legislators to promote an importation scheme that would create more avenues for counterfeit drugs to enter the country in the middle of an unprecedented opioid crisis," said spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll.
Ayer dismissed the organization's concerns as unfounded, and Scott said he believed the bill had significant safeguards.
Since 2003 federal law has allowed the U.S. health secretary to give states permission to import drugs, but it has never been granted.
"We've been clear as an administration that this is a longshot," said Vermont Agency of Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille.
Vermont will need to submit the certification request for review by July 2019 and set up a funding mechanism to pay for the program.