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The Toronto Star

Rx Express rolls north in search of cheap drugs

by staff Writers
Aug 24, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- A train carrying elderly activists to Canada to buy drugs departed yesterday on a rolling protest against high U.S. drug prices.

The Rx Express was arranged and paid for by a taxpayers' group, which wants the government to be allowed to negotiate a national bulk-purchasing program for pharmaceuticals to reduce their cost to U.S. Medicare patients and others.

The protesters aboard the two chartered train cars - 25 senior citizens, small business owners and others - are due to arrive in Vancouver tomorrow.

"Prescription drugs are bankrupting the entire health-care system," said Jerry Flanagan of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

David Parker, 64, of Orange, Calif., said the costs of his medication and health insurance together have tripled to about $1,000 (all prices U.S.) a month. To help deal with the increase, he has gone on Social Security early and is paying some of the expense by using the equity in his home.

"Eventually we'll have to sell the house to pay off the loans," he said.

Carole Jaquez, 78, of Apple Valley, Calif., said she gets free drug samples from her doctors and sometimes goes to Mexico to buy cheaper pharmaceuticals. Otherwise, the five medicines she takes for acid reflux, asthma and high blood pressure can run $300 a month - a big chunk of her $2,200-a-month income. "When I can't afford it, I borrow from my relatives," she said.

Jaquez said she also has tried to import Canadian drugs even though government regulators say it is illegal.

"They're not paying the bills - I am," she said. "It's higher and higher. Where's it going to stop?"

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has opposed prescription drug imports because it says it cannot guarantee the drugs' safety. But there has been a groundswell of demand by Americans because of skyrocketing drug costs.

Certain pharmaceuticals cost a quarter as much in Canada as they do if purchased in the United States due to government price controls.

Prescription drug facts from 2003:

- Total retail value of prescription drugs in Canada: $15.9 billion

- Retail value of drugs in pharmacies (excludes dispensing fees, hospitals): $13 billion

- Brand-name share of retail market: $10.93 billion (84%)
Generic share: $2.07 billion (16%)

- Total number of prescriptions filled: 361 million

- Brand-name prescriptions: 217 million (60%)

- Generic prescriptions: 144 million (40%)

Source: IMS Health Canada