How Far Would You Go for Cheaper Drugs? (cont.)

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.

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 medicines.

Taking Half-Doses to Save Money

Cliff Bates, a 60-year-old retired paper mill worker, pays about $300 per month for five medications he needs to treat knee problems, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, and hopes to save quite a bit. He says he's tried to save money by splitting his pills and taking half a dose, but that "doesn't work so good -- I got dizzy."

Technically, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits the importation of prescription drugs from other countries. But the Canadian trips take advantage of an FDA loophole that allows individuals to import a limited supply of approved drugs for personal use. Still, the agency has broad enforcement discretion, and as the bus approaches the border, there are jokes about what reasons to give for going to Canada. The "drug czars" opt for the truth and explain the mission to sympathetic border guards. The guards wave them through, noting that plenty of people are doing the same thing on their own.

While the FDA is not currently trying to prevent drug-buying in Canada, that could change. In an effort to head off an FDA crackdown and to draw attention to the huge price differences, the House of Representatives on July 10 overwhelmingly approved a bill barring the agency from enforcing the general ban on drug reimportation.