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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

The Oregonian
Aug 30, 2004

by Rick Bella

Stores light way for Canadian prices on drugs

The Tigard store window has been empty for months and no one lights the red-and-white sign anymore. But the defunct Canada Drug Service has remained in focus for those seeking lower-cost prescription drugs from north of the border.

And if recent events offer any clue to the future, the folks behind businesses such as Canada Drug Service someday may be regarded more as political casualties than maverick scofflaws.

Canada Drug Service never boasted shelves stocked with medications, or even the over-the-counter pain-relievers, shampoos and salves that most drug stores offer.

Instead, the business, tucked into a storefront on Oregon 99W, specialized in service. Proprietors Glen and Diane Bremer referred clients with valid prescriptions to a fully accredited pharmacy in British Columbia, which shipped the drugs south. The arrangement clearly saved hundreds of senior citizens thousands of dollars in the cost of necessary medications.

But the Oregon Board of Pharmacy said that kind of referral service is illegal and threatened to impose fines as high as $1,000 a day. To avoid surrendering their customer list, the Bremers unceremoniously closed March 25.

"You know, driving by the store still raises my blood pressure a bit," said Glen Bremer, who has returned to an earlier career as a high-tech recruiter. "We still get calls from people who track us down at home. We have to tell them we've shut down -- and wish them luck."

The Board of Pharmacy wasn't done, however. In May, a similar operation in Springfield, Canada Drug Supply, shut down under the same threat.

Since then, however, someone seems to have changed the water in our political fish tank.

Several state lawmakers -- notably Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, Sen. Ben Westlund, R-Bend, and Rep. Alan Bates, D-Ashland -- have been rallying for change, indicating that the issue may surface in the 2005 Legislature.

Then, earlier this month, Gov. Ted Kulongoski unveiled a plan that would allow uninsured Oregonians to buy lower-cost Canadian drugs. If approved by federal officials, pharmacies here could buy certain drugs from Canadian wholesalers, then sell them to Oregonians who have no insurance -- about one in seven, at last count.

And just last week, the nonprofit Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights reserved two cars on an Amtrak train that stopped in Portland en route to Vancouver, B.C., in search of lower-cost drugs. The train, dubbed the Rx Express, generated widespread buzz -- and sympathy.

Now, nobody is proposing that businesses such as the Bremers' be allowed to operate. But there are plenty of indicators that the public's mood may be shifting.

Cable-access TV talk shows are full of local people asking how Canadian drug manufacturers can offer the same drugs at lower prices than U.S. companies can. Every week, someone questions why the federal Food and Drug Administration says Canadian drugs can't be trusted. After all, we're not talking about a country with slipshod health standards.

In fact, many of the prescription drugs coming in from Canada were manufactured in the United States and shipped north of the border. However, the United States has laws against re-importing drugs.

As if the Canadians do something weird to them.

And as if attaching French labels alongside the English labels made the drugs dangerous.

Bremer has followed the developments closely, but has avoided being consumed by resentment.

"When I saw the governor's plan, I felt it lent credence to what we had been saying all along," Bremer said. "In some sense, we were part of the impetus for that. What we were doing stirred the pot enough to create some action -- and you know, I'm kind of proud of that."
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Rick Bella's columns appear Mondays and Wednesdays.
Contact him at 503-294-5114 or at rickbella@news.oregonian.com

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