It's the latest flashpoint in a confrontation between the Trump administration and the pharmaceutical industry, which for years successfully has fought off importation proposals. Drugs in other economically advanced countries are often much cheaper because governments set prices.
Speaking at a White House event where he pledged to end "surprise medical bills" for patients with health insurance coverage, Trump segued to the subject of prescription drug costs. "We may allow states to buy drugs in other countries if we can buy them for a lesser price, substantially less price, and that is going to be very unique," he declared. "But we will allow them to go to other countries because the drug companies have treated us very, very unfairly, and the rules and restrictions within our country have been absolutely atrocious."
He added that with "certain permissions" states will be able to import prescription drugs from abroad "if they can buy them for 40%, 50%, 60% less." Trump's comments were an obvious reference to an importation plan recently passed by the Florida legislature and expected to be signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally who made it one of his priorities.
DeSantis told reporters in Florida on Thursday that he had talked with Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar this week about the plan and that the president told Azar, "You work with this governor to get it done."
Florida's program would have to be approved by Azar's department before it could be implemented. Under the plan, Floridians could eventually gain access to cheaper Canadian prescription drugs. Supporters say imported drugs would have to meet federal Food and Drug Administration standards and that 80 percent of drug ingredients used in the U.S. are foreign-made now.
The bill overcame stiff opposition from major pharmaceutical companies and medical organizations who claimed importing drugs would lead to risks of counterfeit or ineffective substances and would be difficult for the U.S. or Florida to regulate.
Some experts have been skeptical of allowing imports from Canada, partly from concerns about whether Canadian drugmakers have the capacity to supply the much larger U.S. market. But consumer groups have strongly backed the idea, arguing that it will pressure drugmakers to reduce their prices here, where government traditionally has not set such limits.
AARP pushed hard for the Florida plan, saying it's possible to safely import lower-priced, equally effective drugs and it would promote worldwide price competition. CEO Jo Ann Jenkins praised Trump for supporting the Florida legislation, calling it a "sensible drug importation plan to help reduce prescription drug costs."
The drug industry lobby, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the plan will put Floridians at risk, potentially allowing counterfeit or adulterated medications. "These proposals cannot guarantee that patients wouldn't be put in harm's way nor is there evidence they will save patients money," the group said in a statement.
Anderson reported from Miami.