Vermont pushes feds to allow wholesale drugs from Canada

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) We could finally see action from lawmakers to bring down the costs of your prescription drugs. People have complained for decades and a new move could be the path forward.

Vermont has already signaled it's ready and willing to import certain drugs from Canada back into the U.S. wholesale. Now, they're pushing the federal government to let them try.

"I mean, why is it that way?" Donna Pion asked.

Northeast Kingdom resident Donna Pion has the same question many Americans do about prescriptions. Why do they cost so much here when just miles north, over the border in Canada, they're cheaper? A family member of hers gets thyroid medication from there for a fraction of the cost.

"Wants to see lower prices," Pion said. "It's about 10 percent the cost as if she were to buy it at a local drugstore."

"Anyone who's ever had to go pay a full retail price for a prescription at any pharmacy in America knows what's happening," said Greg Marchildon, the director of AARP Vermont.

Marchildon says it comes down to one thing.

"It's simply greed," he said.

But he says he's encouraged by bipartisan movement on Capitol Hill. Both leaders in Congress and the president signaling support for re-importing drugs to bring down prices.

"I'm more encouraged than I have been in maybe the last 20-25 years," Marchildon said.

The state of Vermont is also encouraged.

"It feels like we may have a pathway with the federal government to make this happen," said Martha Maksym, the acting Agency of Human Services secretary.

Thursday, Maksym and Health Care Reform Director Ena Backus told us they're reaching out to their federal counterparts to set up meetings to speed up the process. Because while Vermont passed a law last year saying it would allow drug importation from Canada, our law hinges on federal approval. There's been a federal rule in place since 1997 saying the feds could approve a drug re-importation program but it has sat untouched for 22 years.

"This is the first time we're seeing an invitation to use it," Backus said.

But the devil is in the details and Thursday's press conference was short on those. The state estimates $1 million-$5 million in savings but they also admit they didn't have all the data they need for an accurate assessment. And when anything might happen is also up in the air.

"I think we have more work to do to be able to given an honest estimate of the time we would need to get this up and running. There are a lot of unanswered questions still," Backus said.

For Vermonters like Pion who are caring for others, it can't come soon enough.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Hoping they'll do that soon?
Donna Pion: Oh, yeah. Tomorrow is fine. (laughs) Why not?

Why not? Well, drug companies say they're concerned about safety. The state says they'd have to make sure protocols were in place to ensure that.

In addition to the feds, Vermont is also talking with three other states that have passed similar laws-- Colorado, Maine and Florida-- to see if there's a possibility that we could team up on a pilot project to cut costs.

Also, it's worth noting that no one has reached out to Canadian drug importers about this to see if they're even interested in selling back to us. That's kind-of a big detail that they'll need to explore more down the line when they have more of a sense of how the federal government wants to proceed.