In a twist on a publicity stunt popularized by proponents of health care reform, a Canadian doctor and 12 of his patients recently traveled from New Brunswick to Maine, warning Americans not to adopt a Canadian-style universal health system.
But a closer look at the group reveals ties to the U.S. pharmaceutical industry.
Chris Ward, a former Ontario lawmaker and health policy consultant who organized the trip, said he testified at 15 state legislatures last year on behalf of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA. Each trip cost around $1,000 in expenses plus economy airfare, he said.
Ward's Web site shows he's served as vice president for a major pharmaceutical industry association in Canada, "the equivalent to PhRMA," the site notes.
Ward said PhRMA was not involved in the trip to Bangor, which cost approximately $6,000. "I contributed (money) towards it and (so did) a couple of individuals" who are patient advocates, he said, declining more specifics.
"If I philosophically believe patients would be better served with more choices (like those in the American health system), how is what I'm doing any different than what the AFL-CIO is doing in running a bus trip up to Canada?" Ward said.
Tony Lordon, a St. John, New Brunswick family physician, brought some of his patients on the bus trip. (The remaining four patients are now also under his care). He has also accompanied Ward on at least four speaking engagements before legislatures, appearing on several agendas as a PhRMA representative.
PhRMA spokesman Bruce Lott said he "doesn't think Lordon has any kind of official relationship" with the organization. But Lott said Ward is a PhRMA consultant, and that both men have represented the industry at editorial board briefings.
U.S. politicians, primarily Democrats from states like Maine and Oregon, have taken bus trips to Canada in recent years to highlight the high cost of prescription drugs. Drugs are generally cheaper in Canada than in the U.S., sometimes by as much as 30 percent.
Critics say drug industry connections to groups like Ward's are misleading to the public. In a report released earlier this year, the Center for Policy Alternatives, a left-leaning public policy group based in Washington, D.C. funded in part by labor unions, said PhRMA tried to drum up opposition to prescription drug legislation in at least eight states under the guise of consumer-based organizations.
"PhRMA is lobbying furiously in every state to defend (its) lucrative drug pricing system," the center said.
PHRMA's Lott said the center's "claims are ridiculous. We have gone to great lengths to ensure lobbying we're doing (in the states) is open and upfront. Our people are properly registered and we file disclosures for grassroots efforts as well."
PhRMA opposes Canadian-style universal health care because officials say it restricts the number of prescriptions a patient can get, as well as access to newer drugs.
Two years ago, PhRMA commissioned a study on Canada's system. Among the findings: Canadians wait on average seven months longer than Americans for new medicines to be approved, and cost-containment tools used by the government limit the number of medicines available to patients.
"U.S. policymakers... should learn from Canada's mistakes and not make the mistake of emulating that system," said PhRMA president Alan Holmer.
But Maine Rep. Paul Volenik, a Democrat who is heading up the state's drive toward universal health coverage, disagrees. "The patients from Canada (on the recent bus trip) told (the media) they all love their health care system and wouldn't trade it," he said.
Maine officials are currently reviewing bids for a study on how much a universal health care system would cost the state.