LOS ANGELES – A train carrying elderly activists to Canada to buy drugs departed Monday on a rolling protest against high U.S. drug prices.
The “Rx Express” was paid for and arranged by a taxpayers’ group, which wants the government to be allowed to negotiate a national bulk-purchasing program for pharmaceuticals to reduce their cost to Medicare patients and others.
“Prescription drugs are bankrupting the entire health care system,” said Jerry Flanagan of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
David Parker, 64, of Orange said the costs of his medication and health insurance together have tripled to about $1,000 a month. To help deal with the increase, he has gone on Social Security early and is paying some of the expense by using the equity in his home.
“Eventually we’ll have to sell the house to pay off the loans,” he said.
Carole Jaquez, 78, of Apple Valley said she gets free drug samples from her doctors and sometimes goes to Mexico to buy cheaper pharmaceuticals. Otherwise, the five medicines she takes for acid reflux, asthma and high blood pressure can run $300 a month – a big chunk of her $2,200-a.m.onth income.
“When I can’t afford it, I borrow from my relatives,” she added.
Jaquez said she also has tried to import Canadian drugs even though government regulators say it is illegal.
“They’re not paying the bills – I am,” she said. “It’s higher and higher. Where’s it going to stop?”
Stephanie Barstow, 70, of Sherman Oaks and her husband, Carl, who requires a wheelchair, said they had cut costs by getting free drug samples from doctors but those have stopped and they expect to start paying $600 to $700 a month for their prescription drugs. That’s a fifth or more of their income.
“You have lots of people in the same boat,” she said.
The couple economizes by eating $2 lunches of donated food at a senior center, buying day-old bagels at markets and buying clothing at thrift shops, “which my children think is a positive horror,” she said.
“I never conceived of being in this kind of a situation,” said Mrs. Barstow, a retired social worker. “But you have to make the most of it. You do the best you can.”
The Food and Drug Administration has opposed prescription drug imports because it says it cannot guarantee the drugs’ safety. There has been a groundswell of demand by Americans, however, because of skyrocketing drug costs.
Certain pharmaceuticals cost a fourth as much in Canada as they do if purchased in the United States due to government price controls.
For instance, a three-month supply of the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor costs $214 in the United States and $162 in Canada.
Americans are paying more because the drug companies must recoup the cost of research and development and the Canadian controls are keeping prices there artificially low, an industry trade group said.
A new drug can cost $900 million to develop,” said Wanda Moebius of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
“We’re talking about a system that is reliant on the profits of the industry to come up with future cures,” she said. “Americans wind up paying a larger share of research and development costs. It’s a completely unfair system.”
A poll released this month by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found that older and disabled Americans strongly support proposals to permit prescription drug imports and to allow the government to negotiate prices of medicines.
Four-fifths of those polled said they support the proposals, both of which are banned under the new prescription drug law passed last year by the Republican-led Congress and signed by President Bush.
The “Rx Express,” consisting of two chartered train cars, departed from downtown’s Union Station. The train was scheduled to pick up riders along its route. Twenty-five senior citizens, small business owners and others were to arrive in Vancouver on Wednesday, either by train or by bus if a recent fire in an Oregon tunnel forces the train to stop short of the border, Flanagan said.
The riders were to be flown back home.
While importation is banned, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows people to buy up to three months of drugs for personal use with a U.S. prescription, Flanagan said.
“The point is, we shouldn’t have to go to Canada and we shouldn’t be restricted by policies that are giving away the store to pharmaceutical companies,” he said.
Critics say the issue has been overblown.
Republicans argue that new Medicare discount drug cards are helping to cut drug bills by 25 percent for people without drug insurance. The cards will be replaced in 2006 by prescription drug insurance under Medicare, which the Bush administration says will reduce drug costs by more than half for people previously uninsured and much more for low-income seniors.
There also are discount plans available through HMOs, said Gerald Felando, a retired dentist and former Republican state Assemblyman for Torrance.
Felando, 69, of San Pedro, said he pays only $300 a month for health insurance that includes only a small co-payment for the drugs he uses to control cholesterol, asthma and back pain.
“There are programs right now that they can explore that will ease the burden,” he said. “They don’t have to go all the way to Canada.”