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The Brockville Recorder & Times (Ontario)

VANCOUVER — Carla Coco-Boutte of Santa Barbara, Calif., stepped off an Amtrak train here Wednesday for a brief Canadian excursion, but her souvenirs of the trip won’t be aboriginal carvings or smoked salmon.

The 51-year-old former airline employee is hoping to go back with an armload of prescription drugs, bought at a fraction of the price she’d pay in the United States.

“It’s the only way I can survive,” says Coco-Boutte, who estimates her monthly drug costs at around $1,000 US. “I’m on a limited income. Without benefits, I would have to keep doing this.”

Coco-Boutte was part of a group of two dozen Americans who ended a four-day whistle-stop trip to Vancouver from southern California not only to buy drugs, but to pressure U.S. politicians to negotiate with drugmakers the same kind of low drug prices Canadians enjoy.

The protest, which started in San Diego and stopped in several U.S. cities as it headed north, has some support here from those who see it as a warning to Canadians not to allow creeping privatization of health care.

But Canadian pharmacists oppose the increased cross-border trade in prescription drugs, concerned about a sapping of resources intended for Canadians and a backlash from the international pharmaceutical industry.

This trip, dubbed the Rx Express, was organized by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a non-partisan lobby group based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Spokesman Jerry Flanagan said visits have been arranged with local doctors who will verify the visitors’ drug needs and write prescriptions. Flanagan wouldn’t name the doctors, saying there’s pressure within the medical community not to help American drug-seekers.

But the trip is also intended to send a message to American politicians “that we shouldn’t have to travel to Canada to get the lower-cost drugs that we need.”

The foundation is lobbying the U.S. government to help cut Medicare costs by negotiating national bulk-purchasing agreements with U.S. drug companies.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opposes prescription drug imports, contending it cannot guarantee their safety.

But while importation is banned, the FDA allows people to buy up to three months of drugs for personal use with a U.S. prescription.

A quasi-underground industry has sprung up allowing families, unions and even state governments to buy drugs from Canada, often via Internet pharmacies, at a fraction of U.S. prices.

The value of the cross-border trade is estimated at around $1 billion a year, said Barry Power, director of practice development for the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

Seniors groups estimate about 11 million older Americans – roughly one-third of the total – do without drug coverage and more than a quarter of Americans with disabilities lack coverage.

Flanagan said one out of four U.S. seniors must choose between buying their prescription medication and paying for food or rent.

Critics of Canadian drug imports say new Medicare discount drug cards are helping to cut drug bills by 25 per cent for people without drug insurance.

Coco-Boutte is eligible for Medicare but said it doesn’t come close to paying the cost of drugs she needs for a range of ailments.

Because she’s enrolled in university, she has a student drug plan with a $10 US deductible. But it’s capped at $2,000 US, about two months worth of medications for her, forcing her to make tradeoffs.

“I can’t take everything and I can’t take the full dose that the doctors prescribe,” she said.

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