Biden “Promoting Competition” Executive Order Falls In Behind Drug Importation

July 12, 2021By Alan M. Kirschenbaum

On Friday, President Biden issued a wide ranging Executive Order seeking to address overconcentration, monopolization, and unfair competition in the U.S. economy.  Using an aptly named “whole-of-government” approach, the Order calls on the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, the Agriculture Department, the Treasury Department, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and other agencies to implement wide-ranging policies to combat the “excessive concentration of industry, the abuses of market power, and the harmful effects of monopoly and monopsony – especially as these issues arise in labor markets agricultural markets, Internet platform industries, healthcare markets (including insurance, hospital, and prescription drug markets) . . . .”

Among the Order’s mandates for DHHS are several relating to prescription drugs.  The Secretary of Health and Human Services is directed to submit to the White House, by August 23, a plan to “combat excessive pricing of prescription drugs and enhance domestic pharmaceutical supply chains, to reduce pries paid by the Federal Government for such drugs, and to address the recurrent problem of price gouging.”  DHHS is also called upon to implement existing laws and initiatives supporting the development, approval, and Medicare and Medicaid payment for generics and biosimilars.

But the Order’s most specific mandate relating to prescription drugs pertains to the importation of drugs from Canada.  The Order calls on FDA “to reduce the cost of covered products to the American consumer without imposing additional risk to public health and safety, [by working] with States and Indian Tribes that propose to develop section 804 Importation Programs . . . .”  Section 804 was added to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 2003 to authorize the importation of prescription drugs from Canada under certain conditions, but until 2020, no administration had made the statutorily required certification that an importation program will pose no additional risk to the public’s health and safety and will result in a significant reduction in the cost of covered products to the American consumer.  On September 20, 2020, HHS under the Trump Administration made the required certification for the first time, and concurrently issued a final rule to permit states, and, in certain circumstances, pharmacies or wholesale distributors, to seek authorization from FDA to import certain drugs from Canada.  (See our blog post on the rule.)  However, the rule places the burden of demonstrating consumer savings on the sponsors of importation plans.  Two states have submitted importation plans to FDA for approval, but the rule and the certification were promptly challenged in federal court by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and other interest groups.

Prior to this Executive Order, the Biden Administration seemed to be ambivalent about drug importation.  The Justice Department recently filed a motion to dismiss the PhRMA lawsuit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, or alternatively, for failure to state a claim, which would indicate that the Administration wanted to retain at least the option to implement drug importation through the 2020 regulation.  On the other hand, the Justice Department’s brief went into detail about how difficult it will be to pass the statutory hurdle and obtain FDA approval to import drugs from Canada, and also pointed out that Canada’s Minister of Health has issued an order restricting Canadian sellers from distributing drugs outside of Canada.

The Executive Order places the Biden Administration firmly behind drug importation.  Although the Order is careful to repeat Section 804’s requirement that importation may not impose additional risk to public health and safety, it calls on FDA to work with states and Indian Tribes to find a way to make importation work.

Despite the measures described above, the Order’s provisions relating to drug pricing are, on the whole, relatively modest.  In contrast to Donald Trump, President Biden apparently does not intend to address drug pricing primarily through this or other Executive Orders, or even through regulations.  Instead, the Order announces the President’s intention “to support aggressive legislative reforms that would lower prescription drug prices, including by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, by imposing inflation caps, and through other related reforms.”  This statement (and a similar statement in the President’s FY 2021 budget) reflects Biden’s strategy of leaving the bulk of the work on drug price reduction to Congress.