The Utah House narrowly approved a bill that could lead to prescription drugs flowing into the state from Canada under a program the bill’s sponsor hopes would help lower the cost of drugs.

Utah is among several states debating legislation similar to HB163, which would require federal approval before the state could set up a program for importing prescription drugs.

Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, and the bill’s supporters – 39 voted in favor when it passed the House on Wednesday – point out the same drugs available in the U.S. and Canada sell for vastly different prices. Thurston said opening the door to an importation program, which he said may never receive federal approval, could save Utahns money.

“Who’s opposing this bill?” he asked ahead of the House vote. “People [who] have a vested interest in keeping the price high.”

Rep. Ray Ward, a Bountiful Republican and physician, said pharmaceutical company representatives have told him the U.S. regulatory burden has led to increased costs for the same drugs available in both countries.

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Could lead to a prescription drug importation program with the approval of the federal government. The bill would allow Utah to import prescription drugs from Canada. - Read full text

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“Why is it that we can go to so many other countries and find the same medications for so much less money?” he asked. “It is time to try something different.”

That price difference, Thurston said, has put a strain on the state’s budget through higher health insurance premiums on plans paid with public money.

HB163 split the House Republican caucus and several members of leadership voted against it.

House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the bill would set up a “magical program” that would get more government involved in health care and wouldn’t have an impact on drug costs.

Just before passing the bill, lawmakers cut language out of it that would have required pharmaceutical companies to report to the state if the price of their already-expensive drugs were set to climb.

“We have drugs now that are controlling cancer. We have drugs now that are curing things that have never been cured before,” said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who voted against the bill. “They are expensive.”