Stateline Story

Jaunts Across the Border Best Rx for High Drug Prices?

  • September 26, 2000
  • By Maureen Cosgrove

Treks into Canada or Mexico to buy cheap prescription drugs have long been the norm for many U.S. citizens. However, during the 2000 campaign season new faces have been showing up for these rides: Political candidates.

In at least 11 states (Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Washington) incumbents and hopefuls have chartered buses for seniors, and in some cases gone along as a group sets off for a Canadian or Mexican destination.

Independent U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Democratic Montana rancher Brian Schweitzer, who is trying to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, are considered to be at the forefront of this movement.

They've been pointing seniors toward drug-buying trips since 1999. Schweitzer alone has taken three bus trips to Canada and one trip by plane to Mexico.

Republican Vermont U.S. Sen. James Jeffords and Democratic New York Rep. Joseph Crowley have also played an active role in helping U.S. citizens get cheaper prescription drugs abroad, according to the AARP advocacy group.

The excursions usually work like this: A busload of seniors journey to Canada with prescriptions written by American doctors. Once across the border a Canadian doctor will rewrite the prescription, then take it to a Canadian pharmacy to be filled with drugs costing a fraction of their U.S. price.

For example, Tamoxifen, a drug used to treat breast cancer, typically costs about $110 for a one-month supply in Maine. In Canada, a month's worth of Tamoxifen is about $12, or about one-tenth of the U.S. cost.

Every six weeks or so, two vans containing about 10 people apiece set out from Montpelier, Vermont, for a two and a half-hour ride to Montreal, Canada, courtesy of the Central Vermont Council on Aging (CVCOA). Vermont Rep. Sanders got the excursions under way, says CVCOA spokesman Will Fleming, adding that residents of the richest country on earth shouldn't have to go to neighboring countries for affordable drugs.

"It shows how we kind of don't take care of our weak links in society," Fleming says. "The school of thought seems to be: `Those who can afford it, fine -- those who can't, well, it's not our problem.'"

Fleming couldn't name a Vermont state politician currently helping state residents to get cheap drugs from Canada. Nor could Montpelier dairy farmer Ramona Christensen, 46, who recently caught a CVCOA van to Montreal to buy nine prescription drugs, saving herself $1,600 on three month's worth of pharmaceuticals.

"I would like them (state legislators) to lose everything they have, live on $1,000 a month, be ridden with five serious diseases and not be able to get state help," says Christensen, who suffers from diabetes and a stomach disorder, among other ailments. "In a year's time of living like that, I'd like to see what they would do."

According to a Congressional Research Service study, on average Vermont seniors pay 81 percent more than Canadians for the 10 most widely used prescription drugs.

In Maine, state politicians passed a law four months ago that established a commission that can negotiate drug prices for uninsured Maine residents, WebMD Medical News reported. A similar Vermont bill seeking drug price caps was defeated following "the most intensive lobbying effort" state House Speaker Michael Obuchowski recalled seeing in 28 years, WebMD Medical News wrote.

While the drug-buying bus trips prove that pharmaceuticals cost less elsewhere, it remains to be seen whether the involvement of political candidates will drive public policy or merely be viewed as a campaign tactic.

"It's by no means a solution," says Amanda McCloskey, director of health policy analysis at Families USA, a liberal patient-advocacy group. "But I really do think [the bus trips] illustrate just how bad the problem is, and quite frankly, how ridiculous it is that pharmaceutical manufacturers are willing to give other countries a lower price and we basically are paying the highest price possible."

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Of America (PHRMA), a trade group that represents drug makers, says that the bus trips do not tell the whole story.

"We don't need to import into the United States Canada's price controls. Price controls clearly stifle innovation," said Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for PHRMA.

Trewhitt says that although Americans pay more for their drugs, new drugs are available to them at an average of a year earlier than they are to Canadians.

Various plans are afoot that would add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, but with time running out before Congress goes out of session change isn't expected this year. There is also drug price-relief legislation pending that would make it easier to import U.S.-made drugs from overseas, where they cost less.

While Schweitzer conceded that the bus trips have helped his campaign, he adds that the re-importation legislation resulted from the publicity the trips generated.

Senior Writer Blair S. Walker contributed to this article.