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How Much From Special Interests?

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Los Angeles Times
Aug 11, 2004 - 01:00 AM

by Steve Lopez

They Can't Stomach Drug-Firm Baloney

Carole Jaquez, 78, has found a discount purveyor of prescription drugs for her asthma and high blood pressure. Unfortunately for the Apple Valley resident, the pharmacy she discovered is not in the United States.

For seven years, she's been driving 2 1/2 hours south, crossing the border, and buying her medication in Tijuana.

"Why? Because I can get a much better price, that's why," said Jaquez, who got tired of watching the cost of medicine go through the roof of her local drugstore.

The asthma medication that costs $110 in California is just $45 in Mexico, but the long drive isn't the only hassle. Jaquez once got pulled over when crossing back into the United States with her legal purchase, and she fumed while drug-sniffing dogs went through her car as if the elderly widow were a mule for a Tijuana cartel.

Jaquez also found great deals in Canada over the Internet, but one of her shipments was confiscated by U.S. customs agents.

She isn't alone, of course. Millions of Americans struggle to pay the ridiculously inflated cost of prescription medication, sometimes without any coverage at all, because the entire healthcare system is a mess. They cut back on food to pay for pills, and they cut pills in half to make them last longer.

So Aug. 23, Jaquez will board a train to Vancouver, Canada. She and 17 other mad-as-heck passengers will ride the Rx Express, a protest party organized by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.

In Canada, they'll go to the doctor, get prescriptions and fill them at fair prices, thumbing their noses at American pharmaceutical companies and the politicians the industry owns.

"It's a very powerful lobby," said Paul Smith, a retired physician from Huntington Beach. He buys his own medication from Canada for the aftereffects of a stroke and heart problem, and he's booked a seat on the Rx Express. "Just look at all the money coming down the political pike."

All right, let's look.

In 2004, pharmaceutical companies have so far donated $9 million to national officeholders.

They spent at least an additional $2.5 million sponsoring the Democratic National Convention, and they'll have their checkbooks out for the Republican National Convention too.

Since 2002, Sen. John Kerry has pocketed $239,997, and President Bush is into the pharmaceuticals for $820,774.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the various committees he controls have rung up $337,200 in pharmaceutical contributions while the governor yammers on about the evils of special-interest government.

And you wonder why Carole Jaquez has to drive to Mexico?

"People should not have to drive two hours, or take a train trip, or go on the Internet to buy drugs from another country," says Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Angeles), the author of two bills that would bring some relief.

One bill would set up a state-certified website through which Californians could buy cheaper drugs from Canada. The other would have state agencies and small businesses hook up with each other to get a discount on bulk purchases.

No word yet on what the Anti-Special-Interest governor will do for consumers, but there is no reason to be encouraged.

The governor's office has weighed in against a car buyer's bill of rights opposed by the auto industry, which has kicked nearly $1 million Schwarzenegger's way. And when the action governor made his pick for head of the Department of Consumer Affairs -- former Assemblywoman Charlene Zettel -- consumer advocates jumped out of windows.

The advocates called Zettel a pawn of big business, charging that among other things, she had sided with automakers on California's so-called lemon law, and tried to protect prescription drug makers from liability claims.

But getting back to Frommer's bills, the pharmaceutical lobby is naturally doing everything in its power to kill them.

The pharmaceutical companies would have us believe that current drug prices are fair because they include the cost of research and development of new drugs.

What they don't bother to say is that you and I are covering that tab in more ways than one.

"We're paying the highest drug prices of any country in the world," said Frommer, who is thinking about grabbing a seat on the Rx Express. "And American taxpayers are also paying one-third of the cost of research and development" through public university grants and the like.

The pharmaceuticals also warn that consumers won't know whether drugs they buy over the Internet, from another country, are safe.

I'll tell you what isn't safe. Having to skip medication because you can't afford it isn't safe, and having to travel five hours for a fair price, at the age of 78, isn't safe.

At least next time she crosses a border for her medicine, Carole Jaquez won't have to drive.
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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at
steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez




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