Drug Importation threatens people with chronic illnesses, says advocate.

Guy Anthony, President and CEO of Black, Gifted & Whole. Source: Orlando Sentinel

This editorial by Guy Anthony was published in the Orlando Sentinel on June 12, 2019. Anthony is the President and CEO of Black, Gifted & Whole, a nonprofit focused on issues surrounding black, queer men.

Drug-import Plan Hurts Proper Treatment For Many With Complex Illnesses

Two years after I was sexually assaulted as a teenager, I was diagnosed with HIV. That day, I realized I had a choice.

I could start thinking of myself as a victim with a lifelong medical condition. Or, I could find a way to stay positive. I chose the latter, and I haven't looked back since.

I am a lucky man. Decades of medical breakthroughs have made HIV a manageable condition. Thanks to treatment, HIV hasn't affected my physical health. In fact, my HIV is so well-managed, it isn't even traceable anymore.

Like all people who rely on medications to stay healthy, I want drug prices to come down. Unfortunately, many popular plans to cut drug prices would put me and countless other people at risk.

This week, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would allow individuals and wholesalers to import cheap drugs directly from Canada. Florida will need a federal waiver to implement this program, which the Trump administration seems likely to grant.

I hope President Trump and Florida lawmakers reconsider this plan. Drug importation is a dangerous game.

Foreign markets are flooded with counterfeit drugs. According to the World Health Organization one in 10 drugs sold in developing countries is fake or ineffective. Pills that look legitimate, but lack active ingredients or deliver improper doses, claim tens of thousands of lives each year in developing countries. They also generate up to $30 billion a year in profits.

American patients have no way to know whether or not the drugs they import from Canada are legitimate. And Canadian regulators have repeatedly stated that they can't guarantee the quality of drugs that pass over their border.

We've already seen how risky Canadian pharmacies are. Last year, a U.S. district court judge fined Canada's largest online pharmacy $34 million for funneling counterfeit drugs into the United States. Prosecutors alleged that "Canada Drugs' business model is based entirely on illegally importing unapproved and misbranded drugs…from all over the world." They also found that the pharmacy made at least $78 million importing illicit medicines, including two completely ineffective cancer drugs.

Drug importation poses a particular threat to patients who rely on complex medications to treat multiple conditions.

I should know — I’m one of them.

Like more than 16 million Americans, I am living with depression. Mental illness is incredibly common among those who are HIV-positive. People with HIV are twice as likely to have depression as those who don't have the virus.

Just like other diseases, mental illness can be managed through treatment. But finding the right treatment can be hard for people like me, who manage both HIV and depression. Several drugs will treat depression, and several will keep HIV in check. But not all medicines work together in combination.

Effectively treating HIV and depression often requires a specific — and expensive —combination of drugs. Over time, these drug bills can begin to pile up.

People who are worried about losing the medicines that keep them healthy can get desperate. If Florida and other states move forward with their importation plans, these folks will look north for cheap drugs. Counterfeiters will rush to this new market, and prey on unsuspecting, vulnerable patients.

My life changed the day I got tested. As I walked out of the Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Center, I realized there was no reason to be ashamed — of being a gay teen, of being HIV-positive, or of having to manage mental illness.

I've spent my adult life working to end the stigma surrounding HIV and the emotional impact it has. We've come a long way, and I'd hate to see this progress reversed. Opening up a market for dangerous, counterfeit drugs will make it harder for people to live with HIV. But ensuring continued access to safe, effective medications will help them thrive.