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HomeNewsMedical
Published: 7/4/2004

Canada drugs entice peeved Americans

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Loybelle Poole of Sandusky boards a bus to Canada, where she and other seniors can buy prescription drugs for a fraction of the price that they would be charged in the United States. Loybelle Poole of Sandusky boards a bus to Canada, where she and other seniors can buy prescription drugs for a fraction of the price that they would be charged in the United States.
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Loybelle Poole is doing her part to reduce U.S. health-care costs.

She buys her drugs in Canada.

Last week, as she has several times a year for the last two years, she got up early and boarded a bus in Sandusky with 40 other senior citizens. She, like many other seniors, have listened to the promises that Medicare discount drug cards will save them money - and she does not buy it.

"Most of the cards give you 10 to 15 percent discount. That's absolutely useless to me. I can get a far better discount by going to Canada," said Mrs. Poole, 77, a retired nurse in Sandusky.

A study released last week by the AARP, which supported President Bush's drug law in December, confirmed Mrs. Poole's thinking: The prices of the most common prescription drugs used by older Americans like her increased nearly three times faster than inflation in the three months after the legislation was signed.

Mrs. Poole takes Lipitor to control her cholesterol and Cozaar for high blood pressure, and is on two types of insulin for her diabetes. She just checked what it would cost her for a one-month supply of all those drugs in the United States and learned it would be $230. She gets the same drugs in Canada at $260 - for three months' worth.

Sally Roth, director of the Erie County Senior Center, said she hears plenty of stories like Mrs. Poole's, and said the verdict from the seniors her center serves about discount drug cards is almost unanimous:

"They're a joke. A total waste," she said. "Most seniors here are very unhappy with them."

Discount cards for seniors were part of the changes made to Medicare earlier this year. More than 70 cards, with a wide variety of options and rules, are now offered. The cards were put in place as a temporary measure until more comprehensive prescription-drug benefits under Medicare go into effect in 2006.

Many seniors continue to seek drugs from Canada or elsewhere. Last year, the American Drug Club of Toledo was opened by Toledoan Steve Tobis. It is a storefront operation for Canadian drugs that now has 4,000 members, with more joining every month, Mr. Tobis said.

Some senior advocates, including the Area Office on Aging, which serves 10 northwest Ohio counties, urge caution about importing drugs from elsewhere.

Emilie Owens, director of Options for Independence at the office, said many seniors are confused with the Medicare discount cards. But she tells seniors that ordering drugs from outside the country can be risky because U.S. officials do not monitor those shipments for safety and quality. Her office is hosting a "Medicare Prescription Drug Information Summit" at 1 p.m. on July 20 in the Dana Center on the campus of the Medical College of Ohio.

The focus on prescription drugs is not surprising. From 1995 through 2002, the rate of increase in prescription-drug spending averaged 15 percent. That was two to five times the growth in spending on hospital or physician care.

More attention and pressure has been put on Washington legislators to control those increases. The discount cards and changes to Medicare were one response. There have also been calls to legalize importing drugs from other countries that limit drug prices, such as Canada.

And it is not just senior citizens who are struggling.

Jason Foote, 24, of Walbridge, admittedly felt a little out of place. He was, by far, the youngest person on the bus load of seniors that Mrs. Poole was on, but Mr. Foote didn't care.

"I'm just hoping for a better price," he said.

Mr. Foote takes two antidepressant medications that cost him $500 a month. He has a job at a retail store in Toledo, but the business does not yet offer drug coverage. His parents have been able to help him pay for drugs, but it has been a struggle. So, his father, Dan, who works for U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), suggested he ride along to Canada with the seniors who were seeking cheaper medications.

Those who do not have insurance to pay for their medications struggle to pay or simply do without. Many of those with insurance have seen their co-pays increase to the point where some limit or stop taking their medication. A University of Michigan study earlier this month found that rising co-pays for the popular statins used to lower cholesterol may be causing many patients to skip doses.

In the study, patients whose insurance plans made them pay $20 or more for a month's supply of statins were three times more likely to skip doses, and four times more likely to stop taking the drugs than those whose co-pay was $10 or less.

Skipping doses, or not taking drugs all, could increase the risk of death or complications, according to physicians.

Contact Luke Shockman at: lshockman@theblade.com or 419-724-6084.



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