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Train ride to Canada accents drugs plight

Americans board Rx Express to save on prescriptions

TORONTO — A 68-year-old Pennsylvania woman said Thursday that she happily took a 600-mile train ride to Toronto to buy medicine that would save her thousands of dollars if compared to prices in the United States.

June Marie Preston and her 67-year-old sister, Marion Hicks, live together in Douglassville outside of Philadelphia and traveled by train with 21 other Americans seeking to stock up on cheaper Canadian drugs.

"I hope to realize 50 percent savings," Preston said, noting her asthma medications cost $556 a month.

The trip was organized by the Foundation for Taxpayer Consumer Rights, a nonpartisan group whose founder, Jerry Flannagan, said the point of the trip was to make a political statement.

"The point of this trip is to bring about policy change in the U.S.," said Jerry Flannagan outside a Toronto drugstore.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opposes commercial prescription imports, arguing that it can't vouch for their safety. But individuals can buy a three-month supply of medicine if they have a U.S. prescription.

"It's just like any pharmacy you see back in the U.S. There is no fear here. It's a scare campaign by the pharmaceutical companies," said Flannagan.

Hicks, a retired teacher and hospital chaplain, needs medicine to control her diabetes and her heart condition. She said they joined the train, dubbed the Rx Express, in Philadelphia as it headed to Toronto.

"I would like for our government to become aware of the plight of the people, not to work with the drug companies," Hicks said.

Her sister, Preston, said the U.S. government drug plan is out of touch with regular citizens.

"They have no idea what the general public is going through in this issue with medicines," she said.

Preston said Medicare should be allowed to buy in bulk from drug companies as is done in countries such as Canada to lower drug costs to the consumer.

Canada regulates drug prices as part of its national health care system, while the market dictates pricing in the United States. Many popular medications for chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol can be bought in Canada at less than half the U.S. price.

U.S.-based Pfizer Inc., the world's largest pharmaceutical maker, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, LP and Wyeth have threatened to cut supplies to Canadian pharmacies if they deem orders are too large for Canada's domestic market to prevent it from being resold to Americans.

Canadian drugs are often the same as their U.S. counterparts, manufactured by Canadian subsidiaries of these mostly U.S. drug companies, said Louise Crandall, public affairs manager of the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association.

"Some of the dosages, formulations and packaging may be different, but it's basically the same drug you'd find in the U.S.," Crandall said from Ottawa. "Canadian drugs are perfectly safe."

A "theoretical concern" is that Canadian drugs with minor variations from U.S. versions may not treat a patient exactly as well as the one they were initially stabilized within the U.S., association executive director Jeffrey Poston said.

"But we haven't heard of lots of problems arising from that and it's not a life-threatening issue," Poston said.