Drug Importation

Becerra’s Vote for Drug Importation in 2003

Yesterday, former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was narrowly confirmed (50-49) by the U.S. Senate to become Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Congratulations!

Before he was AG, he was Congressman Becerra. And as Kaiser Health News reminded us in January, Rep. Becerra (D-CA) voted for the “Canadian drug importation law” in 2003. As explained below, the bill voted for was far more ambitious than just Canada. Becerra’s pro importation vote may give credence to the idea that HHS Secretary Becerra will continue the work of his predecessor Alex Azar in favor of drug importation. A little background.

In her New York Times op-ed last week, editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News Elizabeth Rosenthal stated that drug importation was one of the few things that the Trump administration got right on healthcare policy. In her own words, drug importation is a healthcare policy that “deserves to stick around.” She talked about Trump’s executive order on drug importation and former Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Alex Azar’s final rule allowing drug importation, in which he certified that drugs from Canada “pose[] no additional risk to the public’s health and safety.”

My fellow Democrats like to say that everything done during the Trump administration on drug prices was smoke and mirrors. I can’t stand Trump – and very publicly protested Alex Azar’s nomination, referring to him as “Big Pharma Personified” in the Guardian – but under his administration the door opened further to drug importation to lower drug prices. Not surprisingly, PhRMA sued HHS last year to stop it. The question is: will the Biden administration and HHS Secretary Becerra defend it?

And that gets us back to former Congressman Becerra’s vote in 2003. He voted for the Pharmaceutical Market Access Act of 2003, H.R. 2427, which made importation legal from Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, South Africa, the European Union, and the European Economic Area: not just Canada. Obviously, it never made it past the senate. It’s noteworthy that it was a bipartisan vote. 243 yeas (155 Democrats and 87 Republicans) to 186 nays (45 Democrats to 141 Republicans). That’s bipartisan by today’s standards. An interesting paper from Duke University published in 2005 about why H.R. 2427 passed attributes it to partisanship!

Today, importation has strong bipartisan legs due to Trump’s support and that’s where the voters are on drug prices right now. While Mr. Becerra did vote for H.R. 2427, he did not co-sponsor it, which would have been more promising. Still, his 2003 yes vote, the fact that President Biden included support for drug importation in his campaign policy platform, and its bipartisan power, are factors indicating that drug importation stands a real chance.

Gabriel Levitt

Founder of Prescription Justice, the Prescription Justice Institute, and an advisor to PharmacyChecker.