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Fewer seniors turning to Canada for prescriptions

Retired furniture store owner Don Brock quit buying prescription drugs from Canada this year, now that he has signed up for the new federal Medicare drug benefit.

The next time he needs a refill on Lipitor, his anticholesterol drug, Brock will go to a pharmacy near his home in Litchfield. The 74-year-old says he was saving about $300 annually buying Canadian; now, he figures he'll save about $500 through Medicare.

Canada is losing traction as a source of cheaper prescription drugs for many Americans. Cross-border sales have fallen as much as 30 percent, according to the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, since about 42-million seniors and disabled people became eligible for Medicare drug coverage Jan. 1, and the group says U.S. authorities have stepped up enforcement of laws against importing foreign medicines. Several state Web sites connecting residents with Canadian pharmacies have also seen business fall off.

"Medicare Part D won't pay for any drugs out of the country, so I've had to stop that," said Brock, who bought Canadian drugs for more than two years. "I am saving money on this."

While Canadian pharmacists expect some of that traffic to return, they're also considering marketing more heavily to some of the 45.5-million uninsured Americans who can't afford to pay retail drug prices at home.

Canadian Internet pharmacies catering to American customers sprang up about six years ago, filling a market created by busloads of U.S. border-state seniors who came north seeking cheaper medications. Despite pressure from the pharmaceutical industry to enforce laws against the practice, U.S. regulators took a hands-off approach toward those who imported drugs for personal use, and some states turned to Canada to find savings.

Experts say the Canadian pipeline won't disappear.

"Seniors aren't the only ones who use drugs from Canada," said Stephen Schondelmeyer, who directs a pharmaceutical economics research institute at the University of Minnesota. "For the people who don't have insurance somewhere else, Canada is still a very viable alternative."

While Andy Troszok, the president of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, blames the business falloff mostly on Medicare, he said U.S. authorities have also stepped up seizures of Canadian shipments. That scares off some customers, though retailers typically reship such orders at no cost to the consumer.

Suzanne Trevino, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said she didn't have data to confirm whether more shipments were being seized. She said federal policy remains that it's illegal to import pharmaceuticals.

Troszok, who also runs a mail-order pharmacy in Alberta, said he expects to get some of his older American customers back.

That's because of the so-called "doughnut hole" in Medicare, which leaves enrollees on their own for drug costs between $2,250 and $5,100. American seniors could turn back to Canada for cheaper prescription medicine when they reach that hole - but they would do so knowing that Medicare wouldn't give them credit for whatever they spent on Canadian drugs.

Americans spend an average of $728 per year on drugs - compared with $606 in France, $507 in Canada and $261 in Ireland, according to 2003 figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.

All this makes Brock angry.

"You can get everything you want through fair trade and all this and that, except for the drugs that you can use," he said.

ON THE WEB

For more information on Medicare

Part D, visit sptimes.com/medicare.

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