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How Far Would You Go for Cheaper Drugs?

Thousands of Americans are crossing the border to get the best deal on their prescriptions. Our reporter tags along.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

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 Canada.

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 underground solution.

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.

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