TALLAHASSEE -- With President Donald Trump's impeachment before Congress, a top administration official Wednesday joined Gov. Ron DeSantis in trying to shift the narrative to prescription drugs in the nation's largest swing state in next year's election.
Trump's Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the administration is going forward with efforts to allow Florida and other states to import prescription drugs from Canada, potentially reducing costs for consumers and government programs.
"Under President Trump, we've arrived at common sense solutions that we believe can deliver results and keep patients safe," Azar said, announcing the opening of federal rules on the proposal and procedures for manufacturers.
The move starts a more than two-month federal comment period. Most analysts say any chance for launching an importation program is at least a year away.
DeSantis, however, hailed the step. The governor enacted a measure allowing for a prescription drug importation program in Florida -- traveling in June to The Villages, the nation's largest retirement community, to sign the law.
"In the grand scheme of things, this is just one step," DeSantis acknowledged about Wednesday's announcement. "But if you look at recent history, this is a major, major change from where the agency had been."
Indeed, even Azar only a year ago had dismissed as a "gimmick" the idea that Canadian drug imports could drive down pharmaceutical pricing in the U.S. Canada's small drug market is among the reasons why it is seen as having minimal effect on U.S. pricing, industry analysts have said.
Trump, however, has gotten behind the idea. And so have several states led by governors from each major party.
In Tallahassee, the importation program was approved with bipartisan support, although it was fiercely opposed by pharmaceutical companies which financed a heavy dose of TV advertising.
Concerns about the safety of drug imports has been steadily raised, although Azar assured that the "business-to-business" approach envisioned for the program means people aren't buying prescriptions from Internet dealers.
"We agree with the president that the implementation of this newly expanded market should be done quickly and look forward to working with his administration to make that directive a reality," said House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, who pushed through the Legislature bills intended to foster more competition in Florida health care.
A theme echoed by both Azar and DeSantis on Wednesday, though, was that Trump continued to focus on policy even as impeachment seemed to consume Washington.
"Everyone in this room knows how this is ultimately going to end," DeSantis said of the impeachment fight, which is expected to end with Trump's acquittal in the Republican-led Senate.
"And I think that's why it's lost support with the public and is not something that has really energizing a lot of folks in the middle," he added. "It is what it is. But I think the fact that we're doing this shows the administration is pushing forward, doing things."
Almost 20 percent of Florida's population is over age 65, and forms a strong voting bloc. Drug prices are a concern for this cohort, said Jeff Johnson, Florida director for AARP, who attended Wednesday's news conference at the Capitol.
"We had some concern when the legislation passed that look, we can champion a piece of legislation, enjoy the bill-signing and all that, but ultimately the tale of the tape will be when people go to their local pharmacy and their drugs don't cost as much as they used to," Johnson said. "But that's going to be a while."
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