U.S. seniors ride ‘Rx Express’ to Toronto to buy lower-cost prescriptions

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The Canadian Press (CP)

TORONTO — More than two dozen U.S. seniors and patients rolled into Toronto Wednesday night aboard the “Rx Express,” a chartered train on a whistle-stop tour to buy lower-cost Canadian prescription drugs.

The tourists will visit an unnamed Toronto pharmacy on Thursday to make their purchases. Their campaign, however, risks going off the rails because it is illegal for Americans to reimport Canadian drugs into the United States.

“Everybody is looking forward to getting up tomorrow, seeing the doctor and going to get the savings on their prescription drugs that they sorely need,” said organizer David Fink, a spokesman for the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy group.

After buying their drugs, the group plans to split up and blend in with other travellers on their plane trips home. But Fink says the participants feel they have nothing to hide and aren’t worried about the long arm of the law upon their return.

“The Food and Drug Administration has said that they will not prosecute people for bringing back no more than a three-month supply,” he said, adding participants will respect that limit.

“And really what kind of statement would the federal government be making by arresting seniors who are just trying to afford their drugs.”

The Toronto-bound Amtrak train departed Miami, on Monday and stopped in dozens of East Coast cities to pick up passengers. Dubbed the Rx Express, the trip includes 25 seniors or other ailing Americans from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

The group argues that Canadian prescription drugs are 30 to 60 per cent cheaper because Ottawa buys drugs in bulk from pharmaceutical companies which lowers retail costs for consumers.

Fink estimates that buying Canadian drugs saves the average U.S. consumer about $2,000 US a year.

The U.S. government currently prohibits the reimportation of drugs from Canada, arguing there are safety concerns. Nevertheless, many U.S. citizens cross the border regularly to fill three-month prescriptions.

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

“It is absurd that people have to get on a train and go to Canada just so they can afford their drugs,” Fink said.

The group is lobbying U.S. President George W. Bush to reform drug laws before next month’s presidential election, mimicking Canada’s system of bulk-buy discounts.

Skyrocketing drug costs have become a hot-button issue during the U.S. election campaign with some Democrats and U.S. legislators – particularly those in northern states – arguing the Bush administration should remove the ban on ordering drugs from north of the border.

Earlier this year, Bush passed a bill prohibiting the U.S. government from negotiating bulk discounts with pharmaceutical companies. To answer concerns about rising prices, the administration has offered a new drug discount card for purchases in the United States.

For his part, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has said he would negotiate for bulk discounts on behalf of Medicare recipients, who are seniors over 65.

Not good enough, the group says, arguing Kerry’s position offers no protection to low-income Americans.

“For many of these people, not just on the trip but all over the country, they have to make the choice every month. ‘Am I going to buy the prescription drugs that keep me alive or am I going to pay my rent? Is it going to be food or drugs?’ ” Fink said.

“It’s preposterous that people have to make that kind of decision.”

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