FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- After two years of lobbying to lower prescription drug costs for Floridians, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday he's waiting for final approval from the Biden administration to import drugs from Canada, which he said would save tens of millions of dollars.
The Republican governor signed a bill in 2019 allowing prescription drugs to be imported from the neighboring country, but the plan required federal approval. State health officials have been working behind the scenes to meet federal guidelines.
DeSantis also met with then-President Donald Trump in 2019, pointing out that drug costs had risen more than 150% in the past 15 years, and urging him to allow the states to pursue less expensive alternatives from other countries. DeSantis estimated the program would save the state between $80 million and $150 million.
Many people already buy at least some of their medicines from pharmacies in Canada or Mexico, although technically it's illegal to import them. The idea of allowing importation has been around for years, but previous attempts have been blocked by pharmaceutical industry lobbying and safety concerns seconded by government regulators.
In November, federal health officials issued a ruling further opening the door for states to pursue importing prescription drugs. At the time, Canadian health officials also raised questions, saying their country's prescription drug market is too small to have any real impact on U.S. prices.
That same month, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and several other lobbying groups filed litigation against federal health officials challenging the new rule, accusing the federal government of punting the responsibility for demonstrating safety and cost savings to state governments.
The governor dismissed such criticism.
"If we were trying to bring in drugs from some country that wasn't reputable, I wouldn't want to go down that road either, but Canada has the same drugs," he said. "They have very similar protocols and then we obviously would have our process to ensure quality."
DeSantis said the state has met every regulation required to be able to import the drugs. "This has been under review now for six months," he said during a news conference in Lakeland. "We were told that if it wasn't denied last week that we could assume it was going to be approved."
Sarah Sutton, a spokeswoman for the lobbying group PhRMA, said Friday that it agrees patients are paying too much for prescriptions, but said importing drugs from other countries could compromise public safety and is the wrong approach.
"Importing potentially counterfeit medicines from other countries poses a serious risk to public health, especially in the midst of a global pandemic," she said. "Drug importation is a dangerous scheme with no guarantee to actually making medicines more affordable."
Florida's Agency for Healthcare Administration has been working with the federal government to meet all its requirements for the importation and maintains the state is the first to have done so.
The state has also lined up contractors who they say are poised to act swiftly if the program is approved and could fill shelves with Canadian drugs in as few as 90 days. DeSantis held his news conference Friday at a medicine warehouse built by LifeScience Logistics in central Florida for the importation program.
A spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration, Kimberly DiFonzo, said the agency does not comment on pending proposals, but noted the agency had not authorized any importation programs as of late Friday afternoon.
Still, DeSantis seems confident. If approved, the state said it will start with a limited number of drug classes, including maintenance medications for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD; diabetes, HIV and AIDS, and mental illness for those who are under state care, including foster children, inmates at state prisons and certain elderly patients.
The program would then expand to drugs for all Medicaid beneficiaries.