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The San Francisco Chronicle

Cross-border run;

Seniors head for Canada in search of better drug prices

by Victoria Colliver & Mark Martin
August 24, 2004

As the state Legislature gears up to vote this week on four bills to help Californians buy lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, Barbara Turner packs her bags.

The 77-year-old Lafayette resident was preparing Monday to hop on the Rx Express to Canada, a train chartered by consumer groups supporting the bills. As one of 20 seniors from California, Oregon and Washington taking part in the trip, she will go to a pharmacy in Vancouver, where she hopes to find the inhalers she needs to help her breathe for about half the price she pays in the United States.

Turner said she strongly supports legislation to help make buying drugs from Canada easier. The cost of her drugs forced her to return part time to the job she retired from seven years ago. "If I didn't have to pay $100 for one and $90 for the other (inhaler), I could probably do more fun things," she said.

Last week, just as the Canadian drug issue was heating up in Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's health officials criticized the drug bills and proposed instead a program to provide affordable medication to low-income Californians.

Nationwide, states and cities are mounting a growing effort to help Americans who have inadequate drug coverage to turn to Canada, where price controls make drugs 30 to 80 percent cheaper. The bills in the California Legislature address several issues, including buying Canadian drugs in bulk, reimbursing pharmacies for drugs purchased for state programs and creating a Web site to help consumers find safe Canadian sources.

If the bills make it to the governor's desk, he is expected to veto them. In a letter sent last week to the head of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, the governor said "quick legislative fixes" at the state level are against the law and do not take into account complex trade and pricing issues.

Schwarzenegger's health secretary, Kim Belshe, sent a letter to the authors of the four bills last week calling their efforts a symbolic gesture that would never be implemented.

She suggested a series of amendments that would create a program that would provide a "guaranteed minimum discount" with the goal of providing Medicaid prices to all low-income uninsured and underinsured Californians. Those earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible for the program.

The bill authors were skeptical about the governor's plan.

Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Los Feliz, noted the governor's proposal allows drug companies to determine which drugs are included in the purchasing program and said tying the program to Medi-Cal prices still wouldn't provide sufficient savings.

"The governor's proposal is a pharmaceutical industry proposal," said Frommer, who authored a bill to create a Web site of state-sanctioned Canadian pharmacies. Frommer also said Schwarzenegger injected himself into the issue too late in the legislative process. The legislative session is expected to end for the year on Friday.

Members of lobbying groups opposing the Canadian drugs said they had not seen enough details of the governor's proposal to comment. Groups backed by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies oppose buying drugs from foreign countries because they say the practice is illegal, potentially dangerous and reduces funds for research and development.

"The idea of trying to get the state to work directly with drug manufacturers in terms of meeting the needs of the working poor and uninsured is a better concept than importing drugs from Canada," said Barbara Morrow, vice president and general counsel with the California Healthcare Institute, a biomedical trade group based in Sacramento.

Stephen Chang, a biotech entrepreneur from San Diego and president of CURES, an industry-backed group, said he supports methods that allow people to buy lower-cost drugs, but not by purchasing them from foreign sources.

"The issue is access to drugs. An Internet pharmacy in Canada is not going to solve their problem," said Chang, whose group's name stands for Californians United for Research, Economic Development and Saving Lives.

Meanwhile, hoping to draw more attention to the issue, two consumer groups chartered the "Rx Express" on Monday. Barbara Turner and her fellow travelers expect to save hundreds of dollars by buying Canadian. The train left San Diego on Monday morning with stops planned throughout California, including San Jose and Oakland.

"The point is, nobody should have to travel to Canada to get affordable drugs," said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, one of the groups funding the trip and lobbying for the bills in Sacramento.
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