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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

The Oregonian
Aug 25, 2004

by DON COLBURN

Rx Express heads north for drug buy;

Two Portlanders are taking the Canada-bound train trip calling attention to the power of bulk purchasing
The caboose end of a Canada-bound Amtrak train hosted a protest against high prescription drug prices Tuesday on its way through Oregon.

California-based organizers chartered two privately owned rail cars and added them to Amtrak's regularly scheduled Coast Starlight train. They nicknamed it the Rx Express to draw attention to Canada's bulk purchasing of drugs -- an approach they say would bring Americans big discounts if the U.S. government would copy it.

The train left San Diego on Monday morning and reached Portland late Tuesday, at least three hours late. It's due in Vancouver, B.C., this morning.

About 20 charter passengers -- all in search of lower prices for their prescription medicines -- boarded the train at stops along the way. Extra room was reserved for organizers and reporters.

The trip was organized by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonprofit consumer activist group that favors universal health insurance. The foundation paid $20,000 for the charter train cars and flights home after a Thursday news conference. Passengers rode for free.

The patients aboard Rx Express will be examined by a Canadian doctor in Vancouver before buying their medications. On Thursday, they will participate in a joint news conference to announce how much money, if any, they saved.

"Why do you get better prices at Costco? It's bulk purchasing," said Jamie Court, foundation president and chief organizer of the protest.

If the U.S. government negotiated directly with the pharmaceutical companies, as Canada does, he said, it could achieve a better price for 250 million Americans. The discounts would range from 30 percent to 60 percent, he said.

He called that solution simple. Some others called it simplistic and unworkable.

Pharmacy benefit managers already negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry for discounted drug prices for their members, said Phil Blondo, vice president of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association. He cited a recent study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers estimating that pharmacy benefit managers will save U.S. workers more than a half-billion dollars next year.

"There seems to be this notion that the only way to get more affordable drugs is through Canada," Blondo said. "That's just not true."

Court acknowledged that pharmaceutical profits can serve as an incentive to develop new drugs, but he said research and development accounts form a small portion of medication costs.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski this month asked the federal government to allow Oregon pharmacies to import discounted Canadian drugs and sell them to uninsured Oregonians.

Court said the Oregon proposal is "not big enough" because it applies only to one in seven Oregonians who lack insurance.

Organizers said two of the handpicked Rx Express passengers are from Portland: Frances Grippen, 84, and Jean Scott, 76.

The bulk-purchasing plan would apply to what Court called "life-sustaining drugs," such as those for high blood pressure and cholesterol, but not for discretionary drugs such as Viagra.
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Contact the author Don Colburn at 503-294-5124 or doncolburn@news.oregonian.com


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