July 14, 2000 -- It's 7:45 on a steamy Friday morning in June, and the
commuter parking lot on the outskirts of Montpelier, Vermont's capital city, is
filling up with people in need of drugs.
Ramona and Peter Christensen, dairy farmers from East Montpelier, approach
the crowd around the two 15-passenger buses that will take them on the
two-and-a-half-hour ride across the border to Montreal. "I'm a little
nervous with all this money on me," says Ramona, 45, as she flashes a fat
wad of cash. "Are the drug czars here yet?"
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The Christensens aren't here to score marijuana or cocaine; they're after
drugs for Ramona's high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. And
they're not alone. Drawn by prices that can be a fraction of the cost in this
country, more and more Americans are crossing the border into Canada or Mexico
to buy prescription drugs they cannot afford to buy at home. Indeed, the high
cost of medicine in the United States is emerging as a leading political issue
of the new decade: Congressional and presidential candidates alike are
promising to somehow make pharmaceutical drugs affordable here, in one of the
wealthiest nations of the world.
A Huge Difference in Price
Because other nations have price controls on drugs, savings across the
border can be dramatic: A one-year supply of tamoxifen, a cancer suppressant
widely prescribed for survivors of breast cancer, costs about $1,400 in the
United States but just $125 in Canada. Ramona Christensen's 30-day supply of
Lipitor, a drug used to lower cholesterol, costs $144 here and $85 in
While debate rages in Congress on how to lower U.S. drug costs, seniors and
other people in need of affordable medications are moving ahead with their own
At the parking lot in Montpelier, the "drug czars" -- three
organizers from the Central Vermont Council on Aging (CVCOA) -- pull up in a
minivan and begin transferring coolers full of sandwiches and sodas into the
waiting buses. The three began making drug runs to Canada in April after
Vermont's U.S. Congressman, Bernie Sanders, led several well-publicized trips
there to help people buy affordable prescription medications. Similar trips
have been organized from several other border states, inspired by the huge
price differences. Overall, seniors in Vermont pay an average 81% more than
Canadians for the 10 most widely used prescription drugs, according to a new
Congressional Research Service study.
As the green hills of Vermont roll by their windows, the 17 people on the
bus pull out their prescriptions and compare notes. Delores Remington, 66, a
former newspaper clerk, needs five medications, which would cost $825 in the
United States; she went on the last trip to Canada and bought them all for
$475. Ramona Christensen has 35 pages listing the prescriptions she needs for
the next 14 months. The total, if purchased here: more than $20,000.
Christensen was covered by Medicaid (which provides prescription drugs)
until May 31, when her benefits were cut off after government social workers
disqualified her because she'd made too much money on her farm. Now, she says,
her family is trying to live on an income of $1,000 a month. To pay for her
medications, Ramona and her husband have sold 11 of their 85 dairy cows. At
$1,200 per cow, they figure they'll have enough to pay for a year's worth of