As Gov. Phil Scott launches his push for the federal approval that will be needed to import prescription drugs from Canada, administration officials released projections Thursday that suggest savings from an importation program could be limited.
President Donald Trump said recently he wants to allow states to import lower-cost drugs from Canada. On Tuesday, Scott requested a meeting with federal officials to fast-track a drug importation program for Vermont.
"The federal government has said, 'Well we're going to try and, you know, put something forward to help the states that are interested in doing this,'" Scott said at a press conference Wednesday, "and we look forward to working with them and we'd like to expedite it as fast as possible."
Scott said that rising drug costs are responsible for a sizeable portion of recent health insurance rate hikes in Vermont.
Vermonters spend more than $5 billion on health care annually. But according to preliminary analysis from the state's two largest private health insurers — Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP — annual savings from an importation program would amount to just $1 million to $5 million a year.
"Relative to overall health care costs, it is a small number," said Ena Backus, Vermont's director of health care reform, on Thursday. "However, I think anything that can generate savings for consumers is something worth pursuing."
Backus said federal law prohibits the importation of many high-cost prescription drugs, including some forms of insulin. But she said the state could increase potential savings by working with the federal government to expand the types of drugs on the importation list.
Administration officials identified another potential hurdle to savings: cooperation from the Canadian sellers from which Vermont would attempt to access a lower-cost drug supply.
Martha Maksym, Vermont's acting secretary of health, said Thursday that she's seen news reports that suggest the Canadian government may be resistant to any attempt by U.S. states to access its prescription drug market.
"They may be concerned with whether this might reduce the drug availability for their population or things like that, so I think there's certainly work that would have to be done about whether we would have Canadian partners in this or not," Maksym said.
Administration officials say they plan to pursue a drug importation program vigorously. Because Vermont is one of only four states to have passed legislation authorizing a drug importation program, Backus said it could be early in line for the federal approval needed to move forward.
"Because we have led in this state on this issue, it may be that we would be ready to go before a rule-making process was final," Backus said.
Backus said Vermont may team up on a drug importation proposal with Florida, Colorado or Maine — the other three states that have authorized drug importation programs.
The Trump administration may also pursue a regulatory path that would allow states to purchase lower-cost drugs without a state-level importation program. Under that path, the Department of Health and Human Services would create new guidelines under which manufacturers could import to the U.S. drugs they now sell in foreign countries.
VPR's Bob Kinzel contributed to this report.