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Ventura County Star

Rx Express rolls through county with a message;

Train touts cheaper prescription drugs

by John Mitchell
August 24, 2004

The "Rx Express" -- two chartered rail cars hitched to the back of an Amtrak Surfliner train -- rumbled through Ventura County on Monday, its riders holding up signs reading, "Cheaper Drugs Shouldn't Just Be for Canada."

The Rx Express was on its way to Vancouver, B.C., where the 25 or so riders, all age 50 and older, hope to have their prescriptions filled at prices 30 to 60 percent cheaper than at pharmacies in the United States.

The ride was free for seniors, courtesy of a Santa Monica-based advocacy organization called the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

It was organized to dramatize the soaring cost of prescription drugs in the United States and promote a change in federal law to allow Medicare and other programs to buy drugs in bulk to reduce the cost to members.

President Bush and Senator John Kerry were invited to come along for the ride, which began at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, said the foundation's Jerry Flanagan. But as the cars glided to brief stops in Simi Valley and Oxnard, neither candidate popped aboard to shake hands or listen to the pleas.

Among the riders were a San Diego couple with roots in Ventura County. Barry and Sharon Fowler attended Ventura High School, with Sharon graduating in 1966. She then worked at the 3M plant in Camarillo to pay her way through Ventura College.

Barry, 62, is a real estate agent, while Sharon, 56, lost her small business during last year's supermarket strike in Southern California, in which the main issue was health-insurance coverage. Her business supplied vases to grocery stores.

"The focus in America is skewed," Sharon said. "It should be on education and healthcare. We should all be horrified about the healthcare situation, the prescription situation."

The Fowlers combined take eight prescription drugs. Under their insurance, they have $10 co-pays as long as the drug is generic. But Sharon is concerned about the rising cost of insurance and whether they will be able to afford it when she turns 60.

When the train stopped in Oxnard, the couple stepped off to hug and kiss Barry's 88-year-old mother, Dorothy, and his sister, Ellie -- Ventura residents who had been waiting at the station. The family was together only minutes, but it was long enough to bring a wide smile to Dorothy's face. Then, with a last embrace and wave, the Fowlers were back on the train waving the signs.

Other cash-strapped seniors on the train included Carole Jaquez, 78, of Apple Valley, and Pat and David Parker of Orange.

Jaquez, on a fixed income, takes medicine for acid reflux, asthma and high blood pressure. She said her monthly prescription bill in the United States can exceed $400. Desperate for relief, she travels alone to Mexico four times a year to buy the medicine for less.

"So many people can't afford to pay the high prices here," she said. "I'm amazed I've survived as long as I have."

Almost two years ago, David Parker had open-heart surgery, the first time he or his wife had major medical expenses. A few months later, their insurance company raised their premium by 38 percent, from $673 to $941 per month, they said. With David unemployed, it was a devastating blow.

This year, the Parkers, who are in their 60s, have seen their premiums and drug co-pays increase by an additional 80 percent. The Parkers want California officials to regulate the healthcare industry. "They're sticking it to everybody," Pat said.

Mr. Bush recently said pressure is building in Congress to allow Canadian drug imports, but the Food and Drug Administration still opposes it because of concerns about drug safety.
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