Can Trump Fulfill His Promise to Reduce Prescription Drug Prices?

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

In his State of the Union address, President Trump said that one of his "greatest priorities" is to reduce the price of prescription drugs.

"In many other countries," he said, "these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States."

Alluding thus to the "drug reimportation" issue, he added that he had directed his administration "to make fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of our top priorities. Prices will come down."

That won't be easy.

Back in 2004, when Congress took up the idea of lifting the ban in place on importing lower-priced drugs from abroad, I wrote a long, complex Cato Policy Analysis on the issues at stake, urging, as the subtitle said, "The Free Market Solution."

Unfortunately, three years later, when the Senate finally acted, the bill was anything but a free market solution. In fact, it amounted to importing foreign price controls, as I explained in a piece in the Wall Street Journal.

A Publix Supermarket pharmacy manager counts out antibiotic pills to fill a prescription August 7, 2007 in Miami, Florida. Publix has decided to start giving away seven commonly prescribed antibiotics for free. The oral antibiotics will be available at no cost to any customers with a prescription as often as they need it. Publix will offer 14-day supplies of the seven drugs at all of the company's pharmacies. Joe Raedle/Getty

Fortunately, the bill died, but in the face of state efforts along the same lines in 2013, I wrote this time at Cato@Liberty, explaining why the "simple" solution of lifting the ban would not work. Drawing from that post, here's why, in a nutshell. (See the Policy Analysis for the complex details.)

Given the Food and Drug Administration's safety and efficacy standards, it takes 12 to 15 years and upwards of a billion dollars to bring a new drug to market, but only pennies a pill to manufacture it thereafter.

Obviously, drug companies need strong patent protection or they'd never undertake that research and development.

But when they go to market a new drug, they find a relatively free market only in America. Everywhere else they face socialized medical systems and strict price controls, so they segment markets and price their drugs differentially, garnering such profits as they can from each market.

Naturally, therefore, they have to guard against "parallel markets"—vendors in low-price markets reselling the drugs (at a profit) in high-price markets, especially when supply limitations and no-resale contracts are legally suspect.

That's where the reimportation ban comes in. If low-price drugs sold abroad flood the American market, displacing higher-priced domestic drugs, there go the profits—and there goes the R&D needed to discover new drugs.

Naturally, Americans resent having to subsidize the rest of the world, in effect, which is why letting them import cheap drugs from abroad plays so well politically. But we're faced here with a Hobson's Choice—which I've only sketched in this post.

As I said, it's a complex issue, involving treaty arrangements, patent law, and much more, rooted ultimately in the socialized medical systems we find abroad, toward which, alas, we ourselves are moving.

In fact, the ultimate aim of many of the reimportation proponents is to have the federal government subsidize, if not do, the R&D needed to bring new drugs on line. Talk about bad medicine.

The market approach to this problem that I originally proposed would have to allow drug companies to protect themselves through contractual arrangements that limited supplies and policed parallel markets.

That may not be the only solution to this problem, however. In fact, Cato adjunct scholar Dr. David Hyman and attorney Charles Silver have a book coming this spring from Cato entitled Overcharged: Why Americans Pay Too Much for Health Care in which they propose, if anything, an even more complex "prize regime" to reduce drug costs.

It's a clever proposal that addresses even the orphan drug problem, but because it would involve both changes to our patent system and a measure of public funding, the authors grant that it faces a steep uphill battle.

As a political matter, therefore, the more likely approach will be the one we've seen from time to time that simply lifts the ban and includes a few other touches. If so, members will need to think it through carefully. The current arrangements did not come about by accident.

But it's hardly a stretch to say that the administration and Congress could make things worse.

Roger Pilon is the Cato's Institute's vice president for legal affairs.