Challenges Face New Federal Drug Importation Law

December 15, 2020By Serra J. Schlanger & Faraz Siddiqui

In October, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a Final Rule that permits the importation of prescription drug products from Canada (the “Final Rule”). The Final Rule became effective on November 30, but the potential for Canadian drug importation faces significant challenges. First, on November 23, 2020, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM), and Council for Affordable Health Coverage (CAHC) filed a lawsuit challenging the Final Rule. Then, a few days later, Canada passed an interim order banning the export of certain drugs from Canada.

The Final Rule

As discussed in our prior post, the Final Rule implements Section 804 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDC Act), 21 U.S.C. § 384, to allow states and other entities (Sponsors) to develop a Section 804 Importation Program (SIP) to import certain prescription drugs from Canada into the United States. Drugs imported under a SIP must be approved by Health Canada and meet the conditions in an FDA-approved new drug application (NDA) or abbreviated new drug application (ANDA) – meaning that the drug must be currently marketed in the United States under an NDA or ANDA, and the manufacturer must attest that the imported version of the drug meets the conditions of that NDA or ANDA. Before they can be sold in the United States, imported drugs must undergo testing and be relabeled for sale in the United States. The Final Rule includes other requirements to protect the drug supply chain, such as requiring that SIP Sponsors partner with a Health Canada licensed Foreign Seller who must also register with the FDA; limiting product Importers to licensed pharmacists or wholesale distributors; and controlling the number of Sponsors, Foreign Sellers, and Importers for each SIP. The Final Rule also requires SIP Sponsors to provide FDA with data and information about the SIP, including the SIP’s cost savings to American consumers.

As set forth in the FDC Act, Section 804 becomes effective only if the Secretary of HHS certifies to Congress that the importation plan will (A) pose no additional risk to the public’s health and safety, and (B) result in a significant reduction in the cost of covered products to the American consumer. Concurrent with the issuance of the Final Rule, HHS Secretary Alex Azar certified that the importation program described in the Final Rule would meet both of the statutory requirements. As we have previously noted, Section 804 was enacted in 2003, yet this is the first time that the Secretary of HHS has made such a certification.

The Lawsuit

On November 23, 2020, PhRMA, PSM, and CAHC (collectively, “the Plaintiffs”) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia challenging the Final Rule and Secretary Azar’s Certification. The lawsuit seeks a finding that the Final Rule is unlawful and asks the Court to set aside and permanently enjoin implementation of the Final Rule and the Certification made by Secretary Azar.

According to the Plaintiffs, for nearly two decades the government has insisted that importation under Section 804 could not adequately address the statutory requirements for drug safety or cost savings. HHS successfully defended this position in court twice and, even under the current administration, made multiple statements against Section 804 importation – some of which were raised as concerns in the Final Rule. As such, the Plaintiffs allege that the government’s failure to explain its shift in policy renders the Final Rule arbitrary and capricious.

The Plaintiffs allege that the Final Rule fails to satisfy the statutory requirements of ensuring drug safety and cost savings. According to the Plaintiffs, the Final Rule will open the United States’ “closed” system of drug distribution, increasing the likelihood that patients in the United States receive unapproved, misbranded, and adulterated drugs. The Plaintiffs suggest that the labeling of SIP-imported drugs could mislead and confuse consumers and increase medication errors because of the similarity between the labels of the FDA-approved and SIP-imported products. In addition, the lack of FDA scrutiny over relabeling and repackaging could allow adulteration, and FDA would not be able to ensure that products are not illegitimate or counterfeit. The Plaintiffs also allege that the Final Rule undermines important safety protections in the FDC Act, and inappropriately places the responsibility for ensuring the safety of SIP-imported drugs on the Sponsors and other entities that have little expertise and resources to ensure that all aspects of drug safety are satisfied. The Plaintiffs assert that the alternative safeguards set forth in the Final Rule (e.g., the requirement to test SIP-imported drugs) do not ensure safety because FDA will not be able to verify that the methods, facilities, and controls used for the manufacture, processing, packing, and labeling of the drugs are in conformance with FDA requirements.

The Plaintiffs also allege that the Final Rule fails to address the statutory cost savings requirement by conditioning it on future events, and delegating responsibility for demonstrating cost savings to the SIP Sponsors. The Final Rule explicitly acknowledges the government’s current inability to estimate potential cost savings due to a lack of information about the likely size and scope of the SIPs, the specific prescription drugs that may be imported, and the degree to which the imported drugs will be less expensive than drugs currently available in the United States. Since the demonstration of cost savings is required under the FDC Act, the Final Rule envisions that FDA will “find that a particular SIP proposal meets the certification requirements based on the information received as part of the proposal.” 85 Fed. Reg. at 62,112. According to the Plaintiffs, Section 804 does not contemplate or permit this SIP-by-SIP determination. In addition, the Plaintiffs argue that there is no indication that the Final Rule will reduce drug costs or yield substantial savings to American consumers. The Plaintiffs posit that any difference between the cost of comparable U.S. and Canadian drugs will be negated by the costs of the Foreign Sellers and Importers, including the costs of the relabeling and testing required under the Final Rule.

The Plaintiffs also allege that the Final Rule is contrary to intellectual property laws, violates the First Amendment, and raises serious questions under the Takings Clause. These allegations are related to the Final Rule’s requirement that manufacturers help facilitate importation or risk criminal liability. For example, the Final Rule requires manufacturers to either test SIP-imported products for free or turn over trade secrets and other confidential information so that Importers can test and authenticate the drugs. The Final Rule also requires manufacturers to provide Importers with authorization for the use, at no cost, of the approved labeling for the prescription drug, which could include trademarked names and logos. Since the Final Rule does not allow manufacturers to charge for the costs of conducting the required testing or the provision of trade secrets and confidential information, the Plaintiffs allege that this would amount to an uncompensated taking in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The Canadian Interim Order

Before the Final Rule was published, Canada voiced its opposition to the importation proposal, predicting that importation would increase pressure on the Canadian drug supply, exacerbate drug shortages, and limit access to needed medicines in Canada. In direct response to the Final Rule, on November 27, the Canadian Minister of Health signed an Interim Order Respecting Drug Shortages (Safeguarding the Drug Supply). This Order prohibits licensed Canadian establishments (e.g., wholesalers and distributors) from distributing drugs for consumption or use outside of Canada, unless the licensee has reasonable grounds to believe that the distribution will not cause or exacerbate a drug shortage. Canadian licensees are required to create and retain detailed records with the information used to determine that distribution is not prohibited (i.e., will not cause or exacerbate a drug shortage) and must provide this information to the Minister of Health upon request. The Order applies to all drugs that are eligible for importation to the United States under the Final Rule as well as biologics and controlled substances, which are not eligible for importation by SIPs.

Our Thoughts

Drug prices and the desire to provide savings to American patients and consumers will likely continue to be an important issue as the Administration changes. While the Final Rule purports to set forth a possible solution by allowing for importation of drugs from Canada, it seems unlikely that this will be a viable solution. The Canadian Interim Order will effectively prevent the Foreign Sellers that SIP Sponsors partner with from exporting drugs to the United States, raising substantial questions about how SIP Sponsors will satisfy the requirements set forth in the Final Rule. In addition, the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit raises significant questions about the appropriateness of the Final Rule and the validity of the Certification that underlies the Final Rule. In the face of this legal challenge, it remains to be seen whether the new Administration will support the Final Rule and Certification. We will continue to monitor and report on developments related to drug importation plans and other efforts to lower drug prices in the United States.