Democrats Promise Cheaper Drugs From Canada. But Is Trump Already Delivering?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Trump is co-opting his opponents’ central pitches, in effect neutering them on the campaign trail.
Just before the snowy New Hampshire primary, Democrats were firing off ideas in a flurry akin to a blizzard. On her way to a momentum-swinging third-place finish, Amy Klobuchar promised solutions she could implement on “day one” as president … including granting a waiver to allow drug importations from other countries. “From my state, we can see Canada from our porch,” the Minnesota senator quipped. “And we can see what’s going on there — and that’s why I’ve been a leader on bringing in less expensive drugs from outside the country.”
Klobuchar has since dropped out of the race. But the candidate she has endorsed after leaving, front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden, has also promised in his health plan to allow “consumers to import prescription drugs from other countries,” in a bid to “create more competition for U.S. drug corporations.” And driving the promise of importing prescription drugs from America’s northern neighbor has been Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and Biden’s only remaining challenger for the party’s nomination. “We pay the highest prices in the world — double the prices in Canada!” Sanders said to a crowd in Manchester in February, while promising to lower prices and help diminish the opioid epidemic throughout the Northeast.
The coronavirus crisis will only enhance the allure of more affordable medicines — even as Canada and America agreed last week to close their border for nonessential travel. The only problem for Democrats? President Donald Trump may already be beating them to the punch, making progress on one of their key pitches. He has fast-tracked Food and Drug Administration approvals of generic drugs to increase competition and has suggested Medicare should be able to negotiate drug prices. And in December, his White House published a new FDA rule paving the way for states to start importing drugs from Canada.
At least four states, including Florida, have now passed laws facilitating importation, while New York is also mulling jumping on board. In New Hampshire, where Trump’s first primary victory four years ago set him off on his surprising path to winning the Republican nomination, state lawmakers have scrambled to back an importation bill. Governor candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties spoke on the floor in support of it in January.
Of course, it was Sanders who was among the earliest proponents of shipping drugs legally across the border. In 1999, the then congressman organized a trip from a McDonald’s parking lot in St. Albans, Vermont, to a Montreal doctor’s office and pharmacy. He brought with him Kathleen Keen, a Vermont nurse and state representative whose insulin cost her $113 a month … and helped her pick out an equal dosage there for $10. The savvy political move drew attention to the price discrepancy in stark human terms, and inspired copycat actions from politicians in states all along the U.S.-Canada border leading up to the 2000 election. It’s a maneuver Sanders repeated in July, paying for a dozen diabetics to bus across the border from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, to purchase cheaper insulin.
The fact that it was Sanders’ issue originally emphasizes the point, though: It is part of Trump’s practice of co-opting Democratic talking points, effectively neutering their potency on the campaign trail. Another example: The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which started with Trump scrapping NAFTA and working out a new (ostensibly better) trade deal for workers. It was another policy idea supported by many labor union-backing Democrats, especially Sanders, whose primary run against Hillary Clinton included many criticisms of manufacturing job losses resulting from the former North American trade agreement. But after Trump got the USMCA passed, Sanders became one of just 10 Democrats to vote against it.
“Trump negotiated a deal everyone said he couldn’t do,” argues Fred Doucette, a co-chair of the Trump reelection effort in New Hampshire. “I think there is a lot of hypocrisy.”
In opposing the agreement, Sanders argued it “does virtually nothing to stop the outsourcing of jobs to Mexico. Under this agreement, large, multinational corporations will still be able to shut down factories in America.” Still, Trump supporters like Doucette see his response as sour grapes — and they see it happening on health care issues like drug importation too. “The president has started the real journey on that, but everyone wants the talking points because it’s an election cycle right now. So you can’t give the feather in the cap to the president,” Doucette says.
Of course, Trump’s actions have yet to actually lead to large-scale drug importation by the federal or state governments. And many economists and doctors alike worry that, while it’s a favorite populist talking point, Canadian importation isn’t actually a good idea. Chris Orestis, president of LifeCare Xchange and a health care advocate for seniors, notes there are legitimate fears over quality control. “Could you get mislabeled, expired, contrabrand stuff?” he asks. Biden’s plan emphasizes quality control as a precondition for drug imports.
Another reality is that U.S. pharmaceutical companies, which deliver most of these drugs to Canada at a discount, aren’t going to happily continue shipping north if the drugs will be sold back in America at a lower price. The industry “is enjoying the pricing levels they can command inside the United States” and have “very generous donors politically,” Orestis adds. He believes it is especially unlikely that drug importation could pass through a Mitch McConnell-led Senate in an election year. “The president did announce moves in this direction. But there’s no movement, other than the announcement,” Orestis says. “The actual follow-through to make it a reality becomes a whole different ballgame.”
Canada itself has warned the U.S. it would oppose any plan that could threaten its own prescription supply and costs, complicating matters even more.
Still, neither Sanders nor Biden has released a plan for how they will strong-arm Canada into playing ball. Neither of them responded to OZY’s request for comment.
In the battle for stagecraft, Trump is showing he isn’t afraid to borrow from another’s playbook — even if it comes from his ideological opposite, in Sanders.