Prescription drug bill bottled up

CHARLESTON — An attempt to follow Vermont’s lead and allow lower-cost prescription drugs into West Virginia from Canada was halted after lawmakers decided to study the idea instead.

House Bill 2319 — proposed by Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh — would create a state-administered wholesale prescription drug importation program. The bill passed the House Health and Human Resources Committee last week, but on Monday the House Judiciary Committee voted to turn the bill into a study resolution.

“It’s further than it got the last time, so clearly big pharma and the organized opposition got to the leadership and sunk this thing again,” Bates said. “We’ll just keep going forward.”

Bates’ bill, similar to HB 4294 introduced last year, would create a program with the state becoming a licensed wholesaler of imported prescription drugs from regulated Canadian suppliers. The Bureau for Medical Services under the state Department of Health and Human Resources would be in charge of managing the program.

The importation program would only import prescription drugs that can save West Virginia consumers money. The program would be voluntary for in-state pharmacies, which would be required to only charge consumers and health plans the actual costs for acquiring the medications.

HB 2319 is based on a similar law that was signed into law in Vermont last year. According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, states that implement a importation program can keep costs low for consumers by keeping prices at the Canadian price with no markups. The academy, as an example, points to the price of Lyrica, a prescription drug used to treat neuropathic pain. Lyrica costs $6.04 in the U.S. and 63 cents in Canada.

Kip Reese, a staff attorney for the House Judiciary Committee, said other states, such as Utah, have passed similar importation legislation. However, Reese also told the committee it was illegal to import prescription drugs into the U.S. for personal use.

“Prescription drugs in Canada are cheaper than here,” Reese said. “Americans have been trying to buy drugs from our cheaper neighbor, but the practice is illegal under federal law and has been for some time.”

The Public Employees Insurance Agency submitted a fiscal note for HB 2319, noting that prescription costs for the state health insurance program average about $200 million per year. Jason Haught, the chief financial officer for PEIA, said any program that saves the state money is good, but they couldn’t come up with a cost due to the variables, including how much it might cost the company that manages prescriptions for the state, and how many pharmacies might participate.

“Any program providing prescription drugs to our members at lower costs is welcome and necessary,” Haught said. “The greater the number of prescription drugs that can be purchased through the new state drug wholesaler below current costs, the greater the savings and fiscal impact to the plan and members. Without more data on the specifics, PEIA cannot provide an estimated fiscal impact until the prescription drugs and all prices and additional fees are known.”

During Monday’s committee meeting, Delegate Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, made a motion to let a subcommittee look at the bill and perfect it so it could be voted on during the legislative session. The majority of the committee voted no, choosing to turn the bill into House Concurrent Resolution 24, which, if passed, would require the Legislature to study the proposal.

“It’s just my experience in the last four years of being here that when something goes to a study resolution, it sometimes dies,” Byrd said. “We have everybody here, we have all interested parties here, so why not put it to a subcommittee where delegates can work with the interested parties and get something crafted and out of committee and to a vote.”