Should Vermonters be able to get cheaper prescription drugs from Canada?

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Should Vermonters be able to get cheaper prescription drugs from Canada? Some state lawmakers think so, and are working on legislation to make it happen.

The National Academy for State Health Policy says a unit of Lipitor in the U.S. costs nearly $9. The same drug for the treatment of high cholesterol goes for nineteen cents in Canada

"It's just nuts that you can go to Canada and buy some drugs for 10, 20, 40 times less cost than for the same drug here," said Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden County. Ashe has sponsored a bill to allow the state to import wholesale prescription drugs from our northern neighbor.

"I think it's making things accessible to people and better prices that we can all get what we need," said Debra Ann of Montpelier.

The bill creates a bulk purchasing program within the Department of Health. Generic drugs wouldn't make the list. Name brand and specialty drugs would. Supporters say it will save Vermonters money at the pharmacy.

But the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America says the cost savings aren't worth it. In a statement the trade group tells WCAX the bill "...would threaten the safety of Vermont's patients and their families. It is a myth that purchasing prescription drugs from Canadian pharmacies is a safe alternative to FDA-approved medicines."

Still, the Scott administration says the idea is worth exploring as long as it doesn't increase raise Medicaid costs. Health Access Commissioner Cory Gustafson says imported drugs could help commercial insurance plans, but harm Medicaid. "Anything that would risk those net costs being higher would risk state dollars and revenue, and therefore taxpayer funding," he said.

Green Mountain Care Board Chairman and former Republican state senator Kevin Mullin says lawmakers should explore the plan. "Should they be looking into measures that lower prescription drug costs? Absolutely," he said.

If this idea sounds familiar, there's a reason why. Senator Bernie Sanders has long complained about the higher cost Americans pay for the same medications compared to Canadians. Back in the late 90s he would travels with busloads of seniors to Quebec where they would purchase their meds and then come back home. The difference in today's proposal -- the state would do the buying rather than the patient.

Vermont would need a waiver from the Trump administration. Senator Ashe says bipartisan interest might help the state get one. "The state that is farthest along in thinking about this is Utah, a state that is not only a so-called red state, but has very powerful and influential members of the Senate and the House," he said.

Without that waiver, Ashe's bill is going nowhere.