Heading North for Prescription Drugs

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The big silvery tour bus is easy to find in the Sandusky strip mall parking lot at this early hour. 42 people, most over 65, are gingerly making their way up the big bus's wide steps. Their high spirits could come from the warmer temperatures of early spring, or maybe it's just a coffee buzz, but they seem way too excited for this early hour.

Good morning! How are you? This is the prescription drug bus, right? Yeah, this is the drug run... (laughter)

The bus trip costs $25, but a Windsor, Ontario casino will give each passenger $15 Canadian cash back - so long as the bus stays at the casino for four hours. The slots will have to wait, though, until after a stop at a Canadian pharmacy, so passengers can purchase prescription drugs, the main reason most are making today's trip.

70-year-old Ginny McKillips of Victory, Ohio says her growing list of medications is 35 to 50% cheaper in Canada. Before she found out about this bus trip, she tried to do without one of her pills, but she says she'll never do that again, and doesn't recommend it.

Ginny McKillips: I quit taking them and of course I didn't tell the kids, and I ended up in the hospital. I had terrific headaches and here it was from not taking the blood pressure medication and that.

Dr. Baird Pfall and his wife Phyllis are making their second bus trip to Windsor. Dr. Pfall, a registered Republican from Sandusky, heard about the trip from his Congressman, Democrat Sherrod Brown.

Dr. Baird Pfall: I'm a retired physician and after I found out about it, I would tell my patients, and now that I'm retired, I lost my drug coverage, so I go. It's fun and you can save a fair amount of money.

Bus Driver and Sally Roth: Does everyone have paperwork? Driver's licence and birth certificate?

That's Sally Roth. She makes sure each passenger has the proper ID to present to Canadian and U.S. customs officials. She arranges the Canada bus trips through her company Destinations Group Travel. Roth says in the three years she's been booking the trips, she's never had any serious trouble from either government.

Sally Roth: It's not illegal - we bring back a 90-day supply for personal consumption.

But U.S. Food and Drug Administration Pharmacy Affairs Director Tom McGinnis says it is illegal.

Tom McGinnis: The current federal law does not allow U.S. citizens to go outside the States to buy prescription drugs that are available in the U.S.

The law was put in place in 1988 in an effort to keep counterfeit drugs out of the country. The FDA says it can't guarantee the safety of drugs purchased outside the U.S. McGinnis admits though, that the FDA hasn't been stopping citizens coming back into the U.S. with small amounts of medication.

Sally Roth: This is customs.

At the border, Sally alerts the seniors, the driver leaves the bus, and presents Canadian customs with a list of passengers. Within minutes, the group is waved onward, without an onboard visit. By mid-morning, the bus arrives at Hunter's Pharmacy and most people head inside to fill their prescriptions.

In accordance with local laws, a Canadian physician, today, Dr. Antony Hammer, must see new patients, and rewrite or cosign their prescriptions before they're filled. Dr. Hammer scoffs at the notion that Canadian drugs could be unsafe just because the FDA can't verify their purity.

Antony Hammer: We laugh about that, as a matter of fact. They're usually made in exactly the same factory the same. The companies wouldn't dare provide Canadians with inferior drugs to the accepted worldwide standards.

After the doctor, it's off to the pharmacy on the other side of the store.

Mike Hunter: So you've had both these before. You're obviously in pretty good shape, right?

Canadian pharmacist Mike Hunter's affable manner puts his customers at ease. He says if the American business dried up tomorrow, his store, first opened by his father in 1954, would still be thriving.

Mike Hunter: It's good clean business, yes, thank you. But on the other hand, some stories we've heard about people who come up on these trips but without the trips could not afford medications, we're here to help them, and that's what we do.

Many on the bus say they wouldn't be able to afford their meds if they didn't get the price break that Hunter's Pharmacy provides. But the Ohio Pharmacists Association insists that many medications are less expensive right here in the U.S. Association Executive Director Ernest Boyd says the Canadian drug runs are hurting Ohio businesses and could be compromising patient safety. Boyd urges patients to talk to their doctor and pharmacist about possible drug alternatives.

Ernest Boyd: See if there's some brand name drugs that could be shifted to generic drugs that are available in the U.S. at a much lower cost than even the brand names in Canada are available.

Generics, maybe. But Dr. Jesse Steinfeld, a Case Western Reserve University alum, and former U.S. Surgeon General, says lower U.S. drug prices will only happen if pharmaceutical companies curb the amount of money they spend on advertising, or detailing, as it's called.

Jesse Steinfeld: They have got their packets, little carts, airline luggage full of samples, and samples handed out left and right, because they cost pennies a piece. Yet they're charging dollars for those little pills, so they're out of control.

The federal Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act takes effect in 2006. It's expected to lower medication costs for more than 40 million people across the country. But until then, it's likely the senior drug runs to Canada will continue.

After lunch at the casino, some money won and lost on the slots, and a three-hour ride back to the U.S., the seniors were ready to get home. The sun made like a supernova on its last legs, then dipped below the horizon as the bus pulled into its final passenger stop...

Goodbye ladies... thanks Sally!

...a parking lot sandwiched between the Walgreen's and Super K pharmacies, both open 24 hours. In Cleveland, Janet Babin, 90.3.

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