Americans could import less expensive prescription drugs from Canada under a plan being developed by the Trump administration.
"Driving down drug prices requires a comprehensive approach and we must continue to look at all innovative solutions to this challenge," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in an HHS news release Wednesday.
"Today's announcement outlines the pathways the administration intends to explore to allow safe importation of certain prescription drugs to lower prices and reduce out-of-pocket costs for American patients," Azar said.
With designs on a second term, President Trump has championed lower prescription drug prices.
Canada and other developed countries can make deals with pharmaceutical companies to bring down prices, but the United States bars Medicare from negotiating drug prices.
Other presidential hopefuls are also making affordable medication a priority. At Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pointed out the gap between U.S. and Canadian drug prices.
"I took 15 people with diabetes from Detroit a few miles into Canada," he said, "and we bought insulin for one-tenth the price being charged by the crooks who run the pharmaceutical industry in America today," the Associated Press reported.
One method proposed by Trump's team is to import certain drugs from Canada that are versions of drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It would have to be shown that the drugs are safe and would provide significant savings to Americans.
The second proposal would enable manufacturers of FDA-approved drugs to import versions of those drugs they sell in other countries.
PhRMA, a trade group representing the drug industry, said the new plan is ill-advised.
"The administration's importation scheme is far too dangerous for American patients," PhRMA president and CEO Stephen Ubl said in a statement. "There is no way to guarantee the safety of drugs that come into the country from outside the United States' gold-standard supply chain. Drugs coming through Canada could have originated from anywhere in the world and may not have undergone stringent review by the FDA.
"Moreover, Canadian officials have said that the policy is unworkable," he added, "and they will not risk shortages by diverting their medicine supply to the United States."
Americans benefiting the most from the new plan would be patients with significantly pricey prescription medications. These include lifesaving insulin, which is used to treat diabetes, and drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disorders and cancer, according to HHS.
For many Americans, the cost of insulin is simply too high, leading as many as 1 in 4 patients to ration the drug, experts testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce said last April.
Promoting competition among drugmakers is also a way to cut drug costs, the FDA said.
"The FDA has a unique role to play in promoting competition that in turn can help reduce drug prices and improve access to medicine for Americans," said Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Ned Sharpless.
"We've been keenly focused on ensuring the importation approaches we've outlined pose no additional risk to the public's health and safety," Sharpless said.
There are many operational challenges to address, he acknowledged, and said there will be opportunity for public comment in coming months.
The American Hospital Association has more on rising drug prices.