News CoverageThe Vancouver Sun (British Columbia)
Seniors find cure for pricey drugs
by Chris Johnson and Jenny Lee, Vancouver Sun
Aug 26, 2004
When Carol Jaquez purchased a bottle of pills from a downtown pharmacy Wednesday, it was the end of a journey that took her from her California home to Mexico to Vancouver -- and many doctor's offices, pharmacies and government agencies in between -- in search of affordable medicine.
"I feel great, I'm walking on air," said Jaquez, a 78-year-old with high blood pressure who only slept five hours during a two-night train trip on the Rx Express from Los Angeles to Vancouver. "We shouldn't have to go 2,000 miles to pick up our drugs. This is ridiculous."
On a fixed monthly income of $2,200 US, the retired school assistant said she maxed out her Visa card, spending $800 Cdn on three months' worth of generic drugs for asthma, acid reflux and hypertension that would have cost twice that in Apple Valley, southern California.
"This is a life-saver," she said.
She claimed U.S. border guards once searched her car while she was bringing pills back from Mexico, and U.S. customs withheld a package of drugs she ordered from Canada last November and never received. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent her a letter telling her she was breaking the law.
So, with confidential letters of approval from her American doctors, she joined 25 other seniors for the rail trip paid for by the U.S. Foundation for Taxpayers' and Consumers' Rights to protest against the U.S. health system. Arriving in Vancouver at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, the seniors boarded a bus for their "medical tour" of Vancouver.
Earlier in the day, one Vancouver doctor backed out of a promise to write their prescriptions, said organizer Jerry Flanagan, who had to scramble to find a replacement.
Declining to be interviewed, Dr. Brant Miles saw the seniors and billed some $50. Jaquez said Miles was "gracious" and told her "your blood pressure (at 150 over 90) is too high."
"Of course it is," she recalled telling him. "Yours would be too, if you came all this way on a train."
The Pharmasave Health Centre on Burrard Street filled prescriptions for the seniors, many of whom vowed to return in three months.
Although it bans drug imports from Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does allow people to buy up to three months' supply for personal use.
Flanagan said the U.S. should adopt the Canadian policy of buying drugs in bulk and negotiating lower prices with pharmaceutical companies, who have too much lobbying power in Washington.
"In the United States, one out of four seniors has to choose between buying the prescriptions that they need and paying for other staples such as food and rent," he said.
Arthritis sufferer Stephanie Barstow, 70, and her husband, Carl, who has had strokes, open-heart surgery and kidney problems, say they spend $600 U.S. a month on medication.
Bill Clarke, who was born at St. Paul's Hospital 68 years ago, returned to Vancouver after 40 years in California, where he and his wife Sonja pay almost $7,000 US a year for pills for her asthma and his seizures from an injury while playing football at high school in Vancouver.
"There's no way we expected this when we retired," said Sonja. "It's been real stressful, we can't keep up on a fixed income. I'm just not gonna sit there and feel victimized."
Dr. Morris VanAndel, registrar of the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons, said that the Canadian Medical Protective Association has clarified its position that it would insure doctors dealing with foreign patients, after it said earlier this summer it would not.
"CMPA has said their insurance coverage remains in place providing the treatment is provided in Canada and providing that any subsequent lawsuits are in Canada," VanAndel said.
Linda Lytle, registrar of the College of Pharmacists of B.C., said the college has no problem helping American consumers with prescriptions signed by a Canadian doctor familiar with their case, and that the pharmacist meets legislative and practice requirements.
The B.C. Nurses' Union also helped out the folks on the Rx Express.
"Regulations and not having direct-to-consumer advertising keeps our drug costs down and we think citizens in the U.S. should have lower costs as well," said Pat Shuttleworth, the union's vice-president.
"We have the best, cheapest medical system in the world. Why wouldn't people move toward it? We don't believe they should have to come to Canada to get cheaper drugs. We believe that the Americans should look at regulating the pharmaceutical companies. In the U.S., the pharmaceutical companies spend three times as much on advertising as on research and development."