News CoverageToronto Star
Seniors' freedom train pulls into town
by MIRO CERNETIG, QUEBEC BUREAU CHIEF
Oct 14, 2004
Aboard the Maple Leaf -- Their hair is grey or long gone, some nap throughout the day and all are endlessly popping pills to cope with a cornucopia of aches, pains and debilitating diseases.
But the two dozen aging and ailing Americans who last night completed a 3,500 kilometre train journey to Union Station as modern-day revolutionaries -- like the "freedom riders" who bused into the U.S. south to fight segregation.
"Sure, I'm part of a revolution," says Shirley McClain a 59-year-old black grandmother from Raleigh, N.C., who this summer re-enacted the 1964 freedom ride to Atlanta.
"This is like the freedom rides because we're coming north to defy our government, to change things by ourselves, fighting for the right to survive."
This morning they hope to shame the U.S. government into adopting a Canadian-style system to help the 100 million Americans like them who have little or no insurance to cover the cost of prescription drugs. In a symbolic act, they will march into a downtown Toronto pharmacy and buy drugs at prices that are 60 per cent to 80 per cent less expensive than back home.
They will get their prescriptions from a Toronto doctor, who will examine each passenger, for a $40 fee, to determine what drugs they need.
"I'm doing this because I think it's the right thing to do," said the doctor by phone from Toronto, who asked that his name not be published. "These people need help. They have a right not to be denied the drugs they need to live because they can't afford them."
Then they will find their individual ways back into the United States, smuggling their drugs across the border. It's an illegal act under U.S. law, although the U.S. government has indicated it won't prosecute people bringing back prescriptions for their own use.
The soft-spoken McClain says the trip to a Toronto pharmacy will save her about half of the $120 (U.S.) a month she spends to fight high blood pressure and diabetes. But as she sat in a railway car yesterday trundling down the tracks toward Toronto, she said the real point is publicity: "We have to let people know that the drug companies and our government are making medicine unaffordable. It's an injustice."
In a nutshell, because the U.S. government does not allow Medicare to buy in bulk as Canada's health-care system does, Americans have been subjected to skyrocketing drug prices set by the companies. In the past dozen years, prices have soared by more than 200 per cent, with the $200-billion (U.S.) pharmaceutical industry raking in some of the highest profits of Fortune 500 companies.
To fight back, The Foundation for Consumer and Taxpayer Rights, a nonpartisan public advocacy group, attached two vintage rail cars to the back of an Amtrak train in Miami. The cars were unhooked from that train and switched to another in New York yesterday to continue the trip.
Adopting a technique of the freedom riders, the group tried to stop at whistle-stops in town and cities from Miami to Toronto, publicizing their crusade.
Amtrak, however, made that tough yesterday. As news of the train -- billed the Rx Express, a play on the symbol for prescription drugs -- spread, Amtrak denied reporters access to its station platforms yesterday.
Amtrak did not return calls for comment. But the protesters, unlikely revolutionaries with their crutches, wheelchairs and often unsteady gait, responded with the feistiness they have displayed throughout their three-day trek to Canada.
They hung out of train windows, scrambled as fast as they could across platforms to wave signs or hand out information packages to the reporters on the other side of the fence.
As for McClain, she noted that none of her fellow protesters were black, something she thought strange since so many black Americans don't have health care.
"But maybe it's good everyone else is white," she said. "That might get more attention from the middle class. I just don't think they know what's happening to the rest of us."