Rolling out new importation bill, Sanders, Cummings urge Trump to step up on drug prices

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Sen. Bernie Sanders was among a group of lawmakers who introduced a drug importation bill on Tuesday, acknowledging its hard road ahead given pharma's lobbying power. "These are people who never lose," Sanders said.

Drug importation will get another try in Washington. After a vote on the issue failed last month, a group of lawmakers, including pricing crusader Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., rolled out new legislation pushing the tactic as one solution to pharma sticker shock. 

What's different this time? The bill directly addresses critics' claims that opening the import gates to cheaper drugs from abroad would put patients in danger.

The proposal requires foreign sellers to register with the FDA and gives the U.S. agency “clear authority to shoot down bad actors,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said at a Tuesday press conference with his colleagues. The bill also sets supply chain security requirements, according to a release.

Dubbed the Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act, the bill would allow imports from Canada right away and from other approved countries after two years.

Another big difference: President Donald Trump, who's lamented "astronomical" drug prices, accused pharma of "getting away with murder" and suggested a range of ideas for reining in drug spending.

Some lawmakers said on Tuesday that they see growing momentum behind the price-fighting tactic, amid a public outcry over drug costs that's lasted more than 18 months now. They called on Trump to rally Republican support for the proposal.

“It’s true that the drug industry is getting away with murder,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., citing Trump's previous statement. “So if the president really means what he says, he will support our efforts, and we encourage his Republican colleagues to do the same.” Cummings said it’d be “legislative malpractice” to ignore patient needs, adding that there’s bipartisan support for Congress to act on drug prices.

RELATED: If Trump's 'serious' on drug pricing, Sanders says he's willing to pitch in

All along, the pharma industry’s stance on importations hasn’t changed. A PhRMA spokesperson said on Tuesday that the legislation “would put U.S. patients in harm’s way.” That’s because “this proposal permits the distribution of drugs outside of FDA’s jurisdiction—circumventing the agency’s robust safety requirements,” according to a PhRMA statement.

After senators voted down a previous importation bill last month, Sanders told USA Today some Democrats didn’t have the “guts” to stand up to pharma’s interests. On Tuesday, the Vermont senator acknowledged the challenge his group faces in getting the bill passed.

“These are people who never lose,” Sanders said of pharma’s lobby. But, he said, “the American people are sick and tired of getting ripped off, and we are going to win this thing.”

Since that failed vote in January, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and John McCain, R-Ariz., have asked new Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to authorize imports from Canada. Their bill calls for a “personal importation program” to enable patients to import three-month drug supplies from Canadian pharmacies.

The senators said a 2003 law allows the FDA to authorize imports under certain circumstances, but first the HHS secretary must sign off.

RELATED: Cheaper drugs from Canada? Pharma despises the idea, but top senators are pushing HHS chief to try it

Importation is just one idea being floated to address high costs in the U.S. Granting Medicare price-negotiating power is another. After earlier confusion on that topic, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently said Trump “absolutely” favors such negotiations.

Nineteen senators co-sponsored Tuesday’s bill.