RxExpress called ‘unpatriotic’

PITTSBURGH – Retired Pennsylvania workers experienced two surprises when they bussed into Canada to purchase prescription medications June 10. The first was that seniors can save significant amounts of money by merely crossing the Canadian border. The second was the harassment they received at the border by U.S. border guards.

“Why are you going to Canada to buy your prescriptions?” the armed guards snarled.

“Aren’t you patriotic? When you cross back,” they continued, “you better have the right pills in the right vials with the right prescriptions!”

A bus from Philadelphia also reported harassment on the U.S. side of the border.

The trips, organized by the Alliance of Retired Americans (ARA), along with the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) and United Steelworkers of America (USWA), achieved twin goals of enabling seniors to purchase medications at significant savings by merely crossing the Canadian border and focusing political attention on the need to include prescription benefits in Medicare.

The union has gotten the word that the Bush administration is considering invoking the “Patriot Act” to halt U.S. residents from buying prescription drugs via mail order from Canada and other countries, said SOAR Director Jim Centner. There is a trillion dollars in profit to protect.

Over the next decade, according to the the Congressional Budget Office, prescription drug spending by seniors on Medicare will total $1.5 trillion. No wonder ARA Executive Director Edward Coyle charged that drug companies are “earning high profits on the backs of older Americans and the disabled.”

Pharmaceutical corporations lead the pack of all private corporations in profiteering, according to Fortune magazine. With profits running at 18.6 percent, they beat out commercial banks, like Mellon, at 14.1 percent, oil companies, telecommunications and dot.commers by a wide margin.

With many retirees spending half their Social Security check on their prescriptions, U.S. doctors often give out samples. But, bus riders said, drug companies are now curtailing such free samples.

USWA President Leo Gerard hailed the bus trips, pointing out that it is a national disgrace that U.S. retirees have to travel to Canada to get life-sustaining medications. At an earlier press conference Gerard, who is Canadian, said that drug companies are barred from advertising in Canada, contributing to the more affordable prescription costs there.

Retired steelworker and bus rider Dwayne Cooper agreed. It was a great success, he said, with retired workers saving money.

On one bus, ARA and SOAR leader Marie Malagreca reported, 17 seniors who filled prescriptions in Hamilton, Canada, saved an estimated $33,000. For example, Coumadin, a blood thinner commonly prescribed for victims of heart attack and stroke, which sells for $64.88 here, is only $15.80 in Canada.

Malagreca added that she was surprised to find that Claritin, Tylenol with codeine and other U.S. prescription drugs heavily advertised and expensive in the U.S., were sold over the counter and were far less expensive in Canada.

The Pittsburgh bus was greeted in Hamilton by steelworkers from Local 6868. They fixed lunch, explained the Canadian system and made U.S. residents feel at home, said Pennsylvania SOAR Executive Board member and bus rider George Edwards.

The reception at the USWA hall was a far cry from the border crossing where U.S. guards barked about “patriotism” and argued with the retired workers.

The ARA and the USWA made all the arrangements for the seniors to fill their prescriptions in Hamilton. To fill prescriptions in Canada, consumers have to visit a doctor for a brief check-up and then the Canadian doctor writes out a prescription. When Edwards asked a Canadian doctor to take a photograph for the union’s retiree magazine, the doctor refused, fearing harassment.

SOAR Director Jim Centner explained that U.S.-based insurance companies have threatened to cancel Canadian doctors’ insurance if they cooperate with U.S. residents buying medications in Canada.

Pittsburgh riders, a little weary, came off their buses smiling and signing up to make a return trip. “We are going again,” Malagreca said. “We will keep on going until we don’t have to. When Congress acts to put the prescription drug benefit into Medicare we’ll stay home. We have never backed down from what is right. They call us the ‘greatest generation.’ We are a strong, tough, smart generation. In this case, it is life and death for millions.”

There are a number of bills and plans before Congress. AFL-CIO Works in Progress reports that House and Senate Democrats’ plans call for Medicare to pick up a large portion of beneficiaries’ prescription costs, set a cap on out-of-pocket expenses and carry a $25-a-month premium.

The ARA’s political expose, “The Profit in Pills,” has U.S. drug corporations and their ultra-right, mostly Republican, cronies snarling, barking and snapping in fury. The Rx Express itself brought down the wrath of the Republican National Committee (RNC). Marc Racicot, RNC chairman, charged that the trips were “Democratic scare campaigns.”

“Who is scared of what?” asked Edwards. Referring to the 17 seniors’ estimated savings, he added, “What are the Republicans scared of? That they won’t get that $33,000 in campaign contributions from the drug companies? That a retired worker may spend it on groceries?”

For additional information, visit www.retiredamericans.org and www.fairdrugprices.org

The author can be reached at dwinebr696@aol.com


Conn Hallinan
Conn Hallinan

Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus. A retired journalism professor, he previously was an editor of People's World when it was a West Coast publication.