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Orange County Register
Aug 19, 2004 - 01:00 AM

by JANE GLENN HAAS - ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Taking Rx Express;

Six O.C. residents are joining a trip to Canada to protest high prescription-drug costs.
So far, Pat and Dave Parker have bled $25,000-plus in equity from their Orange home to pay for routine health-care costs - and there's no end in sight.

The couple say their insurance premiums and drug co-pays have soared 80 percent since 2001.

"California has a dysfunctional medical system, and I'm on my high horse about it," Pat Parker says.

So the couple will join four other Orange County residents on the Rx Express, a charter train that leaves from San Diego on Monday.

In all, 20 people will ride the rails, holding whistle-stop protest meetings in California, Oregon and Washington as the train works its way to Vancouver.

The train is sponsored by Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which is advocating, among other reforms, prescription drug bulk purchasing to lower drug costs.

In Vancouver, the Parkers, Dr. Paul and Ginette Smith of Huntington Beach and Tom and Sophia Garbin of Garden Grove will meet with Canadian doctors, present copies of their prescriptions and buy their drugs at 30 to 60 percent less than U.S. costs.

The Rx Express is the latest election-year ploy to draw attention to what consumers say is the high cost of prescription drugs - costs the pharmaceutical industry says are driven by research and development expenses and price caps in foreign countries.

Fueling consumer anger at pharmaceutical companies are recent reports by groups such as Families USA, a nonprofit advocacy group that says prescription-drug prices are growing at roughly twice the rate of inflation.

Last week a Kaiser Family Foundation poll reported that two out of three seniors want federal lawmakers to fix the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, set to take full effect in January 2006. Tops on the wish list is repealing the section that bars the government from negotiating bulk discounts with pharmaceutical companies.

Meanwhile, Democratic state legislators are proposing that state agencies identify low-cost Canadian pharmacy sources for California consumers.

Sen. Deborah V. Ortiz, D-Sacramento, (SB1149) and Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Los Angeles, (AB1957) are sponsoring bills to develop an interactive Web site that includes information on Canadian pharmacies that meet recognized standards for safe dispensing of drugs.

"Something is very wrong when we have to go outside the country to get a fair price," says Dave Parker, 64. "A year ago, I went to Mexico and bought toenail-fungus medicine for $200. The same thing cost $600 here. And don't tell me it's not safe, because it worked."

Dave Parker's health-cost problems began in 2002, a few months after he was laid off from a longtime job as an electronics salesman. Since then, he's had heart-bypass surgery, kidney stones, his thyroid removed and severe arthritis.

Parker's monthly health-care premium of $350 to cover himself and his wife rose to $663 after his layoff.

But by 2003, the premium jumped to $940 a month.

"I called the state, and they said the company could raise the premium as much as they wanted and they didn't have to explain anything to us," Pat Parker says.

She blames corporate greed for the increases.

Smith, who worked as an obstetrician-gynecologist in Long Beach until he had a stroke in 1996, recently went to Canada on a fact-finding trip sponsored by Ortiz.

"We wanted to find out if it is safe for Californians to purchase drugs from Canadian pharmacies, and we concluded these pharmacies are safer than many in the U.S.," Smith, 63, says.

As a disabled Medicare recipient, he is not allowed to receive drug benefits until he turns 65.

Smith, a member of AARP's California legislative advisory team, expects to halve his monthly prescription-drug bill of $1,000 by buying drugs in Canada.

"I'm afraid the drug companies are not very good citizens at this point in time," says Smith. "This is the richest country in the world, but you wouldn't know it by seeing the millions of people with little or inadequate or no health insurance coverage."

Tom Garbin, 60, is boarding the train to demand that insurance companies justify rate increases.

He says his premiums have increased 63 percent to $692 monthly "for no apparent reason."

The reluctance of insurance companies to pay for his needed care and the high cost of prescription drugs have placed is life in jeopardy, he says.

Yet, health insurers say they are working hard to reduce prescription-drug costs. Mohit Ghose, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, said AHIP supports the Medicare Prescription Drug plan and is lobbying for more tax credits and deductions for health-care premiums as well as bridge loans to allow the newly unemployed to pay health-care premiums while they search for work.

Pharmaceutical companies insist they are giving American consumers a good deal. U.S. consumers feel the prescription-drug bite simply because most of their other medical costs are covered by insurance plans, says M.J. Fingland, spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

"We are basically in a box," she says. "It's a completely unfair system."

Because European nations insist on drug price controls, pharmaceutical companies have no choice but to sell to them at a lower rate or lose patent protection, Fingland says, adding that the federal government only recently set up an office to deal with pharmaceutical prices.

Fingland says association members spent $31 billion on research and development of new drugs last year - a bill U.S. consumers say they have to pay while Canadians and others get cheaper drugs.

Fingland argues against importing drugs because consumers have no way of knowing who produces the medications or any method of assessing the quality of ingredients.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also cites safety concerns, but so far has not clamped down on state-sponsored Web sites guiding residents to offshore pharmacies.

Ortiz has challenged the industry and the FDA to produce documentation of unsafe drugs.

"They haven't come up with any yet," she says. "Meanwhile, federal studies by the GAO and Congressional Research Service say reimporting drugs from Canada is actually safer than using most state-to-state mail-order pharmacies."

Dave Parker brushes aside the rhetoric. He takes 10 prescription drugs daily. The worry of paying for drugs and paying for medical care is taking its toll.

"If it wasn't for my grandchildren, I wouldn't have anything to live for. I want them to have something better."




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