PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The United States has had some of the highest prescription drug prices in the world for years. Now, relief may be on the way for Floridians. 

What You Need To Know

  • On Friday, the FDA said Florida can begin importing drugs from Canada

  • The dean of University of South Florida's Health's Taneja College of Pharmacy said it could lead to Floridians seeing lower drug costs 

  • Dr. Kevin Sneed said it's something also being explored by other states but cautions Canada can't meet the medication needs of the entire U.S.

  • Read previous coverage here

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Friday that it authorized the state to import drugs from Canada. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the plan into law five years ago, but it needed federal approval before it could be implemented.

"Overall, I was pretty excited," said Dr. Kevin Sneed, dean of University of South Florida Health's Taneja College of Pharmacy. "I think it's an opportunity for Floridians, and maybe even Americans overall, to finally get lower costs."

The state's program would include a number of drug classes and benefit only certain people, like foster children, inmates, certain elderly patients, and eventually Medicaid recipients.

Sneed said he does have some concerns, including when it comes to other states exploring similar programs.

"If we took Canada and shook them upside down and tried to shake all of their medication out, it still would not be enough to really meet the full needs of our people here in our country, No. 1," Sneed said. "And then No. 2, probably most importantly, we have to keep in mind the safety issue. We have to make sure that we have the surveillance and monitoring."

Once Florida's program begins, the FDA said Florida has to test the drugs to make sure they're authentic and relabel them to comply with U.S. standards. The Florida Department of Health must complete quarterly reports specifying which drugs are being imported, cost savings, and safety or quality issues.

Palm Harbor resident James Doulgeris analyzed the program as part of his advocacy work with the Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association (RSDSA), a not-for-profit that works to help those with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). It's a rare disease that Doulgeris said causes pain so extreme that research has shown around 75% of patients experience suicidal thoughts.

"I kind of coined the phrase, 'The disease won't kill you, but you wish it would.' And that's what gets a lot of people," Doulgeris said.

He has the disease himself and said he spends $20,000 out-of-pocket every year on medications to keep the pain at bay. While he doubts his main medication expense, ketamine, will see a price drop, his other medications could.

"I'm on Medicare Part D," Doulgeris said. "So, if Medicare, which is now able to negotiate drug prices, nationally speaking, decides that they're going to source their drugs through Canada because they're less expensive, then I'll benefit."

Part of what Doulgeris found in his analysis is that it could take anywhere from three to six months for commercial insurance consumers to see any savings. He said that could come as an indirect benefit through their pharmacy benefit. He found cash customers will have to do their own price comparisons, and Medicare and Medicaid will be largely unaffected for now. The exact impacts are uncertain.

"You may see a reduction in your overall costs. We may see it in individual drugs. That needs to work its way through the system to see how the two come out," Doulgeris said.

"What's exciting to me, fighting this fight for 20 years, is that this is the first time that I've really seen something happen bipartisan on health care," said Bill Hepscher, founder of The Canadian Medstore.

The Canadian Medstore works with customers to find the best price on prescription drugs, then partners with licensed pharmacies from Canada and other countries to deliver them. Hepscher said for him, the mission is personal. His brother was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and anti-rejection medications following a bone marrow transplant were going to cost several hundred thousand dollars.

"At the time, we were hearing about people that were going to Canada to buy their prescriptions, and we looked into that. My brother's drugs that were costing over $100,000 here in the United States, we were able to get in Canada for a few hundred dollars," Hepscher said.

He said his business began with one location in Zephyrhills and has grown to six offices across the state. 

"What our typical client tells us is that they're able to get a three-month supply of their medication from Canada for less than what it would cost them to buy a one month supply here in the United States," said Hepscher.

Hepscher said he thinks Florida's new program is great and doesn't see it having an impact on his business since the state will be making bulk purchases while The Canadian Medstore works with individual customers. 

"I think the one thing it does do, though, is it validates what we've been doing for 20 years," Hepscher said. "People, for a long time, have been saying, 'But are the drugs in Canada safe?' And we've been saying the drugs that come from Canada are the exact same medications we're buying here in the United States - they're just 80% less expensive."

The FDA said Florida's authorization will be in effect for two years after the first shipment of drugs from Canada.