Seniors on drug train buy cheaper medicines in Canada

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Associated Press

TORONTO — After a 600-mile train ride to a drug store in Toronto, June Marie Preston said Thursday she was buying medication that would save her thousands of dollars a year compared to prices in her Pennsylvania hometown.

The 68-year-old and her sister Marion Hicks, 67, who live together in Douglassville had traveled by train with 21 other Americans seeking to stock up on three-month supplies of cheaper Canadian drugs.

“I hope to realize 50 percent savings,” Preston said, noting her asthma medications cost $556 a month in the United States.

Preston, a former office manager, criticized U.S. politicians, saying they are sheltered by their own government drug plan and out of touch with regular citizens.

“They have no idea what the general public is going through in this issue with medicines,” she said.

Hicks, a retired teacher and hospital chaplain who needs drugs to control diabetes and a heart condition, said the duo joined the train, dubbed the Rx Express, in Philadelphia after it left Miami on Monday on its way to Toronto.

“I would like for our government to become aware of the plight of the people, not to work with the drug companies,” Hicks said.

She said Medicare should be allowed to buy in bulk from drug companies as is done in countries such as Canada to lower drug costs to the consumer.

Canada regulates drug prices as part of its national health care system, while the market dictates pricing in the United States. Many popular medications for chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol can be bought in Canada at less than half the U.S. price.

U.S.-based Pfizer Inc., the world’s largest pharmaceutical maker, and GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP and Wyeth have threatened to cut supplies to Canadian pharmacies if they deem orders are too large for merely the Canadian domestic market to prevent the medicine from being resold to Americans.

Canadian drugs are often the same as their U.S. counterparts, manufactured by Canadian subsidiaries of these mostly U.S. drug companies, said Louise Crandall, public affairs manager of the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association.

“Some of the dosages, formulations and packaging may be different, but it’sbasically the same drug you’d find in the U.S.,” Crandall said from Ottawa. “Canadian drugs are perfectly safe.”

A “theoretical concern” is that Canadian drugs with minor variations from U.S. versions may not treat a patient exactly as well as the one they were initially stabilized with in the U.S., association executive director Jeffrey Poston said.

“But we haven’t heard of lots of problems arising from that and it’s not a life-threatening issue,” Poston said.

Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonpartisan lobbying group that organized the train trip, said its aim was a political statement.

“The point of this trip is to bring about policy change in the U.S.,” Flanagan said outside a drug store on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street. “It’s just like any pharmacy you see back in the U.S. There is no fear here. It’s a scare campaign by the pharmaceutical companies,” he said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opposes commercial prescription drug imports, arguing that it cannot vouch for their safety. Individuals, however, can buy as much as three months of medication for personal use with a U.S. prescription.

A similar trip was staged on the West Coast in August, when about two dozen Americans chartered a two-car train for a four-day whistle-stop trip from San Diego to Vancouver.

Mildred Fruhling, 76, of Edison, N.J., said she boarded the train in Manhattan Tuesday with her husband to buy prescription drugs at about half the cost their cost in the U.S.

“Today the focus is to buy our drugs and to get the message out of how the administration has turned it’s back on us,” Fruhling said. She and others planned to fly home Thursday evening.

Some of the seniors said they had watched the Wednesday night presidential debates and were John Kerry supporters.

“I am definitely not going to support Bush,” June Marie said, noting the drug issue was a large factor in her thinking.

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