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The Home News Tribune (NJ)

Train headed for Canada, cheaper medicine

by REVA McEACHERN, STAFF WRITER
October 11, 2004

The "Rx Express" is pulling out of the station today and will reach New Jersey by tomorrow, picking up many dissatisfied senior citizens and other patients along the way.

Rx Express chartered trains take seniors and other patients to Canada where prescription drugs are less than half the price of prescription drugs in the United States because, like many other countries, Canada negotiates bulk discounts on behalf of all Canadian residents. The guiding belief behind the Rx Express is that seniors and patients should not have to travel to Canada to get the affordable prescriptions they need, and as such the ride serves as a protest to the current Medicare legislation.

Many American citizens who rely on prescription drugs as a part of their daily life see the new Medicare prescription-drug plan as a "Trojan horse" -- a deleterious thrust to the privatization of health care.

Mildred Fruhling is a longtime resident of Edison and will be joining the Rx Express with her husband, Leonard, tomorrow in Trenton. She has some strong criticisms of the new legislation, saying that "(Legislators) think Medicare can't be supported, so their answer is to turn it over to private insurance companies."

Geared toward seniors and patients with significant out-of-pocket expenses for their prescription drugs, the goal of the trip is to demonstrate the tremendous disparity between prices of prescription drugs in Canada and what we pay here in the U.S., as well as to highlight the need for a national drug bulk-purchasing program and other policies to provide access to lower cost prescriptions.

Sponsored by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) -- a nonpartisan consumer-advocacy group -- the Rx Express will make its first stop today in Miami. From now until Thursday, the train will continue picking up seniors and patients in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington D.C., Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, stopping along the way for press conferences in Albany, N.Y., and Niagara Falls, N.Y., among other cities.

A longtime activist for senior citizen issues, Fruhling has helped coordinate the event and expects that there will already be 25 protesters on board once the train reaches New Jersey. The final stop will be in Toronto, Canada, where passengers will enter a local pharmacy with prescriptions to purchase drugs. According to Fruhling, it's of immediate necessity that we "call attention to the fact that people are in a precarious situation financially, and are willing to do whatever it takes to get fair prices on prescription drugs."

In addition to being a former committeewoman and insurance salesperson, Fruhling is also a member of Families USA, New Jersey Citizen Action, and recently became a member of the FTCR. At age 76, she suffers from hypertension, osteoporosis, high cholesterol and other conditions for which she needs prescription medications. In the past four years, the amount of money she's had to pay to stay well has increased by the thousands, she said.

"My husband and I had prescription drug coverage (Merck-Medco Prescription Drug Manager) through his union (UNITE), for many years, but at the end of 2001 we were notified that we'd be losing our coverage. Because it was a garment industry that was adversely affected by NAFTA -- dues were not coming in, the cost of prescription drugs were rising and the union could no longer afford to support the retirees with drug coverage," she said.

For a while the Fruhlings were paying increased co-pays, but several months later their coverage was terminated.

According to Fruhling, four years ago the total annual amount she had to spend on prescription medications was just short of $1,000 with co-pay. When she was about to lose her coverage in 2001, she checked with local retailers and the estimated amount for a years worth of prescription drugs without coverage was about $7,000.

But that was two years ago. According to Fruhling, "The new Medicare prescription drug card came out several years after we lost our coverage, and low and behold the costs of drugs with the discount came to about $9,000 a year in 2004. So ever year the costs seem to be going up."

Fruhling, who says Medicare would more appropriately be called "Medi-don't care, because I really can't see how anyone cares about what will happen to seniors as a result of this legislation," is working hard to promote awareness about the critical need for more affordable prescription drugs. Many seniors are being forced to chose between necessities such as food and shelter, or purchasing the medications they need to stay alive and healthy.

Fruhling has no doubt that the Republican majority in Congress has to do with the particular "insensitivity of the new Medicare program."

"I had been a registered Republican, but I don't see them following the line I would like. I am currently a registered Democrat. From what I'm able to gather, it appears that if we don't change the legislature from predominantly Republican to Democrat, nothing is going to be done to change this legislation," she said.

With the escalating cost of drugs, any discounts with the new legislation will ultimately be "eaten up" she said. And recent projections show that the costs will continue to rise.

"My feelings are repeal the whole thing. This legislation is more full of holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. Campaign-finance reform is needed desperately because as long as (Republicans) are able to have their palms crossed with silver they're going to be handmaidens to the corporations."

The Rx Express took a similar trip on the West Coast in August, during which riders saved 59.8 percent off the prescription-drug prices they pay in the United States for a total annual savings of $2,000 each.