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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

The Toronto Star
Oct 13, 2004

by Miro Cernetig, Toronto Star

Transplanted Canadian heads home for medicine

New York Paul Smith left Canada for California two decades ago. He wouldn't dream of coming back to Montreal because of "all that sleet and snow." He voted for George W. Bush. He's now an American.

Still, there's one big problem in this Canadian doctor's American dream.

Buying drugs in his adopted home of Huntington Beach, where he boasts the California sun shines something like 340 days a year, is draining his bank account and cutting into his standard of living. So he's now undecided about giving the U.S. president another term, another sign of how the American health-care crisis might be the sleeper issue in this race.

"If I didn't buy my drugs in Canada, I'd be spending more than $20,000 (U.S.) a year just for medicine," said the retired gynecologist-obstetrician, who acknowledges he's hardly a member of the United States' poor. "My wife and I used to take two foreign trips a year. Now we don't take any."

Along with two dozen other retirees and ailing Americans, the 63-year-old Smith will be arriving at Toronto's Union Station tonight to buy a three-month supply of his prescription drugs - an illegal act under U.S. law.

But the savings are worth the risk, since the United States doesn't usually arrest normal citizens who smuggle in prescription drugs for their own use. He estimates buying Canadian drugs - usually from 30 to 60 per cent cheaper than the same medicine south of the border - will reduce the cost of his heart, diabetes and blood-thinning drugs to $1,100 a month.

Yesterday the Republican supporter, no fan of high taxes or big government, stood before a microphone in a Manhattan hotel room, offering a gathering of New York reporters a simple message: In tonight's U.S. presidential debate, Democrat contender John Kerry and Bush need to start following Canada's example.

"It's not Communist," he explained. "It's not Socialist."

"We've got to do the same thing down here in the United States that Canada does for its citizens - negotiate the best price for prescription drugs from the drug companies. We need to do bulk buys."

The unusual train trip, organized by the non-partisan Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, is an election-year ploy designed to draw attention to the exploding cost of medicine in the Untied States. Currently, the law does not allow Medicare, the U.S. health insurance program for people 65 years of age or older, to buy drugs in bulk, as many industrialized countries do to hammer down prices for consumers.

"We hope that both candidates will address this in the debate," said Jerry Flanagan, a spokesman for the non-profit group.

On the rest of the train yesterday, other passengers - many among the 100 million Americans who have little or no drug cost insurance - fretted about their lack of health-care insurance, often without prodding.

"You Canadians have $8 (U.S.) cigarettes," said one woman. "Well, we all have $100 bottles of drugs. That's worse."

"I'm afraid I will lose my house," lamented Ginnie Neill, a 52 year old on the trip to Canada who suffers from an autoimmune deficiency that leaves her unable to work. "I'm paying up to $1,200 (U.S.) a month in drugs. It's not American.

"My father worked for the department of defence," she said. "My son was in the military. My adopted son is stationed in Guam. I've paid my dues. I'm a registered Republican - I voted for George Bush. But this time I'm voting for Kerry."

After they visit an unnamed Toronto pharmacy tomorrow morning, the group plans to split up and return to the United States individually, blending in with other travellers.

"I put my drugs in a sock, stuck into my suit case," said Julia Morrison, who has osteoporosis and other illnesses. "It makes you a little suspenseful going over the border, but go ahead and arrest me. It would be a big political mistake."

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