Medicine imports can be done safely for the individual, but will they be done wisely?
Modern telecommunications and shipping networks have simplified the process of buying almost anything from overseas via the web. However, it remains illegal to import medicines without explicit authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. While the US government does not generally enforce this prohibition in cases of limited personal use, the restriction remains, and the practice is widely discouraged. Under the banner of patient safety, industry-backed lobby groups have successfully advocated for search engines such as Google and Bing to discourage people from buying overseas. Further, payment organizations such as MasterCard, PayPal, and Visa — and delivery companies such as FedEx and the US Postal Service — are being pushed by government bodies to make purchasing and delivery from foreign sites more difficult.
This problem has worsened because of recent responses to the opioid epidemic, which are fueled in part by the pharmaceutical industry. They are the same group that benefits from the current restrictive system. However, a growing body of evidence, including empirical evidence from my new report, demonstrates that foreign pharmacies credentialed by independent groups sell safe medicines. Furthermore, as high drug prices increasingly come to dominate conversations on health reform, politicians on both the left and right are beginning to see the benefits of limited personal importation.
Unfortunately, the debate has been taken over by those seeking to undermine the differential pricing system of the pharma industry by pushing for wholesale importation. Efforts in Democrat–controlled Vermont and Republican–controlled Florida have advanced the furthest to allow such importation.
As my report argues, importation has been made illegal not on behalf of patient safety, but economics. The same logic that justifies global price discrimination for pharmaceutical products applies within and among countries. Through this argument, I show that it is both equitable and efficient for underinsured (usually low-income) Americans to pay less than they currently do and, further, that personal importation achieves this aim without overhauling America’s existing drug framework or compromising patient safety.
Tweaking the current system to give underinsured patients access to medicines from overseas is beneficial. Undermining the current system by allowing wholesale importation is not.