A bipartisan group of three senators, including Senate Finance member Charles Grassley (R-IA), is urging HHS Secretary Tom Price to allow imports of less-costly versions of expensive off-patent prescription drugs that lack competition, but only if the imported drugs are produced abroad by brand companies that invented the drugs or by well-known generic companies that commonly sells drugs in the United States. Price sidestepped questions during a confirmation hearing about whether he would advocate drug imports, a policy pushed by Donald Trump while on the campaign trail.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America continues to oppose drug imports. "The importation of unapproved and potentially counterfeit medicines into the United States jeopardizes our secure medicine system and presents a serious risk to public health," PhRMA spokesperson Nicole Longo said.

Most of the headlines about rising drug prices fall into two categories: one involves new branded drugs that are the first in their class, and the other involves old drugs that are off-patent but no longer have competitors. The drug-import policy pushed by Sens. Grassley, John McCain (R-AZ) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) would apply to the latter.

ÒMany of the drugs subject to recent, drastic price increases are available in other countries for a fraction of the cost, and are often still produced by either the original brand manufacturer or a reputable generic manufacturer,Ó the senators wrote in a letter to Price.

The lawmakers say it is increasingly common for brand drug companies to sell the rights to market or make drugs in the United States, which gives those buyers the right to set prices and control supply and distribution as they wish.

HHS could use its existing authority under a 2003 law to permit pharmacists and wholesalers to import drugs from Canada, the senators say. The law requires the HHS secretary to certify that imported drugs are safe and would save consumers money before the current ban could be lifted.

It might be difficult to show that allowing imports of all drugs from Canada is safe and reduces costs overall, the senators write, but the law lets the secretary target drugs.

“The policy can also be expressly limited so that it does not negatively affect innovator companies that invested in the development of the drug,” the letter adds.

Drug importation is just one of the tools the Trump administration has at its disposal to control drug prices, which is a goal of the president. Grassley wrote to then presidential candidate Donald Trump prior to the election urging him, if elected, to also prod CMS and FDA to do more to help control drug prices. Grassley said FDA could speed new drug approvals and get rid of the generic drug backlog. CMS should ensure drug makers properly classify their drugs for Medicaid rebate purposes, he said. Grassley also said the Federal Trade Commission should step up its scrutiny of the pharmaceutical market.