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Long Islanders skeptical, and optimistic, about importing drugs from Canada

Some Long Islanders are skeptical the United States

Some Long Islanders are skeptical the United States can purchase drugs from Canada at lower prices, as is being touted again by the Trump administration.  Credit: AP/Rich Pedroncelli

While some Long Islanders welcomed the Trump administration's announcement this week that it would allow the importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, others were skeptical.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former drug company executive, announced the plan Wednesday amid widespread public uproar over high drug prices from consumers and members of Congress. Lawmakers in both parties have introduced legislation to reduce costs.

Azar said the Food and Drug Administration would oversee importation, though there could be challenges from the pharmaceutical industry, and it's unclear how long it would take to implement the plan.

Nathan Mohan, owner of New Island Pharmacy in Deer Park, is wary the government won't be able to ensure the safety of every foreign medication that is imported into the United States.

It would be impossible to “stand behind the product, because the United States is the gold standard of regulation,” Mohan said. “There is no way I could stand behind the safety or the quality of a product coming from somewhere else, so I wouldn’t distribute it.”

Nassau County residents eating lunch and chatting Thursday at the Glen Cove Senior Center also were skeptical.

“I don’t like the idea of importing drugs into this country,” said Dominic Vergata, 84, of Glenwood Landing. “I don’t trust the quality. I feel more comfortable with drugs manufactured here.”

Azar's plan still would need regulatory approval, according to reports. Azar urged Congress to pass legislation on the plan, which, reports said, would make it more difficult to overturn in court.

Grace Amendolara, 82, of Glen Cove, said so long as the government could ensure drug quality, she backed the plan.

“It’s a big deal if it’s affordable and reduces our costs here and gives us a few more options,” Amendolara said.

Her biggest concern is that obtaining FDA approval for drugs “is a very lengthy process,” although she believes President Donald Trump’s forceful style will help push the policy past bureaucratic hurdles. . 

Jane Hannett, 81, of Sea Cliff, also welcomed the plan. But, citing the partisan gridlock in Washington and the power of the pharmaceutical lobby, she said it may never come to fruition.

Like other diners at the senior center, Hannett had stories of high copays and frustration with insurance companies. She is covered by a combination of Medicare and private supplemental insurance and each month must budget $178 for a copay for a blood thinner. Her doctor recently started prescribing her a drug for high cholesterol.

“I don’t know what the copay is,” she said. “I’m concerned it will take a big chunk out of my limited income.”

Julio Viola, director of Centralized Pharmacy Services at Northwell Health, said, “The reason the drugs are one price in Canada and another in the United States is because the Canadian government regulates the prices and places a price cap on them.”

Viola said even if the importation plan was implemented, in many cases copays may stay the same, so insurance companies may save money rather than patients.

And with the Canadian market far smaller than the U.S. one, there will only be a limited supply of drugs to import from Canada, he said. Once the lower-priced imported drugs run out, many Americans may still end up paying the higher U.S. drug costs, he said.

“You could end up with a drug with two different prices, depending on whether they came from Canada or here,” Viola said.

Sharon Collins, 76, of Sea Cliff, is exasperated that Americans pay so much more for the same drugs than people abroad.

She recalled how several years ago she and her husband were in Paris and he went to a pharmacy there to obtain an asthma medication he had forgotten at home. It cost a third the price of his copay for the drug in the United States. When they looked at the label, they saw that the drug had been exported from the United States to France.

“The system here is crooked,” Collins said.

John Macari, 74, of Glen Cove, said importing foreign medications wouldn’t solve the problem.

“We need to regulate the costs, the drug prices, here in America rather than go out of the country and bring drugs here,” he said. “The drug companies’ profits are huge. The president keeps saying we need to lower the prices of drugs in America, but he hasn’t mentioned” price controls, because of the power of pharmaceutical companies.

Macari doesn’t believe either price controls or the more modest importation plan will be implemented any time soon.

“I think it will constantly be delayed,” he said of importing medications. “The drug companies contribute so much money” to politicians.