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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

Portland Tribune
Aug 24, 2004

by BEN JACKLET - The Tribune

Seniors take aim at drug prices;

Event will spotlight two groups' differing cost-cutting solutions
The "Rx Express" started off as a simple enough idea: Send a group of senior citizens up to Canada to save money on their prescription drugs, and raise all sorts of election-year issues along the way.

Then a fire in a tunnel south of Eugene closed the railroad tracks, forcing the seniors to charter a bus. They then switched back to rail when the fire was brought under control Sunday.

But by then, a whole different group of seniors decided to piggyback on the event to make the counterpoint that traveling to Canada is unnecessary.

Now, the two groups will hold dueling news conferences at Union Station today as they argue one of the nation's mostly hotly debated issues. The first group is calling for governments and insurance companies to save patients money by buying medications in bulk. The second group is spreading the word about a prescription drug card program under the new Medicare bill that they say can save seniors hundreds of dollars a year.

The "Rx Express" is due to arrive in Portland at approximately 3:40 p.m., depending on whether the rail tunnel south of Eugene remains passable. Three Portland seniors will join a party of two dozen others sponsored by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a group that advocates bulk purchasing policies to bring down the price of pharmaceuticals. The group is bound for Vancouver, British Columbia, where prescription drugs are 30 percent to 60 percent cheaper.

But according to the second group speaking at Union Station, seniors don't have to travel to Canada -- they can save hundreds of dollars a year by acquiring a Medicare drug discount card. The second group, organized by a public relations consultant hired by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, plans to bring out a different set of seniors, with a different agenda.

Anne Williams of Summit Group Communications said her group's goal was to educate seniors about their options under the new Medicare program. She cited a study by the Healthcare Leadership Council that estimated 94,000 Oregon residents are eligible to save up to 24 percent by using the card.

But the seniors bound for Canada are not thrilled with the new Medicare bill. Jeane Scott, a retired counselor who was born and raised in Portland, said she is not eligible for the card and those who do qualify will not receive nearly as much in savings as has been promised.

That's why she's traveling to Canada, Smith said: "I'd march every day if I could make the statement that we need cheaper drugs in the U.S."

Health care reform advocates say rising prescription drug prices are bankrupting the health care system, as American consumers pay the highest prices in the world. Recent Oregon legislation made public employees and some seniors eligible for savings through the bulk purchasing of medications, but the pharmaceutical lobby has resisted expanding that policy.

"We are getting squeezed by the pharmaceutical companies," said Maribeth Healey, executive director of Oregonians for Health Security. "Why is it that Mexico, Canada, Italy, France and every other industrialized country has a much lower cost for their medications? They either have price controls or they negotiate in bulk. That's what we need to do here."

Wanda Moebius, a spokeswoman for the trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, said drug companies have resisted price controls and importation because they end up hurting American patients.

"European and Canadian consumers end up getting a free ride because of price controls -- and American consumers make up the difference in paying for research and development," she said.

"The solution is to bring market forces to bear, so that patients pay the true value of the medicine."

The arguments back and forth could go on forever. But Fran Grippen, an 82-year-old Portlander who decided to travel to Canada after she heard about the train trip from her son, says she doesn't want to take political sides. She just wants to pay less.

"We're all looking for lower prices on our medicine," Grippen said. "We're paying way too much. What else can I say?"

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