Portland seniors demand right to import cheaper Canadian drugs

It was a cold Saturday afternoon, but about 50 seniors turned up in a Tigard parking lot Nov. 8 to make a point: If the U.S. government won’t do something to make prescription drugs affordable, then at the very least it ought to get out of the way and let people re-import American-made drugs from Canada.

It was a point scored nationwide by the Alliance of Retired Americans (ARA), the AFL-CIO's constituency group for union retirees. The group is supporting a bill in Congress that would eliminate obstacles to drug reimportation.

Americans pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. The breast cancer drug Tamoxifen, which in Canada costs $44 for 180 tablets, costs $246 in the United States. Thirty tablets of the arthritis drug Vioxx go for $42 in Canada; in the U.S., the same tablets cost $95. The heartburn medication Prilosec costs $83 for 30 pills in Canada; the U.S. price is $135.

It's no secret why drugs are cheaper abroad: It’s because elsewhere, government-instituted price controls ensure that medications are affordable. In the United States, on the other hand, the government gives drug companies a lengthy patent monopoly, and lets them charge whatever they want.

Fed up with paying “market” prices set by monopolies, Americans are responding with a “free market” strategy of their own — they’re going to Canada to buy their prescriptions, or ordering them by mail from Canadian pharmacies.

But drug companies, seeing their price monopoly slip, are using their political, legal and economic clout to respond.

• Eli Lilly announced in October that it would limit its sales of drugs to Canadian wholesalers to the amount it estimates Canadian consumers need, following similar moves earlier this year by Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline.

• Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration and state pharmacy boards are taking enforcement action against businesses that help consumers import prescription drugs from Canada.

• On Nov. 6, a federal judge in Oklahoma issued a ruling in a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department against two companies, Rx Depot and RxCanada, that help Americans import Canadian drugs. The ruling shuts down about 80 such stores in its jurisdiction.

So, in Tigard, ARA members turned up Nov. 8 to defend a business that helps them import Canadian drugs. In the parking lot of the Canada Drug Service, 11505 SW Pacific Highway, they were joined by Congressman David Wu (Oregon’s 1st District), and the business owners, Glenn and Diane Bremer.

The Bremers have a relationship with Canadian pharmacies, and they help customers fax drug orders and prescriptions, which are re-approved by a Canadian doctor before being shipped direct to the consumer.

“A lot of seniors are uncomfortable ordering prescription drugs through an anonymous Web site, or they may not have access to the Internet,” said Glenn Bremer.

“I wanted to go to Canada, but I didn’t think I could afford that kind of trip for these kinds of savings,” said retiree Vera Dafoe, who gets her medicines through the Bremers’ business.

Retired marine steward Eugene Sly says he spends $1,000 a month on medications. By buying them through Canada Drug Service, he’s saving $350 a month.

The Bremers have received threats of prosecution from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and a warning letter from the Oregon Board of Pharmacy accusing them of practicing pharmacy without a license, for which there is a fine of up to $1,000 per violation.

In every case, the pharmaceutical industry and government regulatory agencies say their concern is consumer safety.

“People see through the smokescreen of it being a safety issue,” Bremer said.

Congressman Wu agreed.

“Over 1 million Americans are already getting their drugs from abroad,” Wu said, “and there hasn’t been a single corroborated case of death or illness from unsafe drugs. What is a risk to health is when seniors are unable to afford medications and go without or take half doses.”

“The FDA says reimportation is too unsafe,” said Oregon ARA President Michael Arken. “If Canadian drugs aren’t safe, how come Bellingham isn’t filled with Canadians there to buy safer prescriptions?”

Wu spoke in favor of a bill in Congress, the Pharmaceutical Market Access Act, that would allow the reimportation of drugs, with appropriate safeguards. Under the bill, the FDA would approve drugs and manufacturing facilities before reimportation, and the drugs would be packaged and shipped using counterfeit-resistant technologies.

“It’s really this simple: Seniors shouldn’t have to pay more for drugs just because they’re Americans,” Wu declared.

Supporters of the bill overcame opposition from the powerful pharmaceutical lobby and its allies the House Republican leadership. It passed the House July 25 on a 243-to-186 vote, with support from over three-quarters of the Democrats and over a third of Republicans. Greg Walden was the only member of the Oregon delegation to oppose the bill. The bill has been referred to the Senate, where it was assigned to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. It’s unclear whether it will get a vote in that chamber.

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