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Seniors question foreign medicine

Practice of buying prescriptions from Canada seems to elicit minimal interest in Missouri.
Thursday, August 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:11 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gloria Hay of Columbia doesn’t know anyone who fills prescriptions in Canada. The retired professor of management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and acting senator in the Missouri Silver Haired Legislature has no pharmaceutical coverage and pays for her medications out of pocket. But the idea of drug importation does not appeal to her.

“I have never considered such a thing,” Hay said, echoing the predominant attitude among Columbia’s seniors.

Despite Missouri’s rising prescription-drug costs, the practice of buying drugs abroad is unpopular and even taboo.

A 2004 study by the Boston University School of Public Health reports that in 2002, the average drug spending in Missouri reached 2.4 percent of personal income, an 82 percent increase from four years earlier. And even though Missouri’s average income is below the national average, residents pay the same amount for prescription drugs.

Additionally, Missourians fill 18 percent more prescriptions than the average American, raising concerns about poor health and health coverage.

Even though prescription-drug importation is a hot-button political issue nationwide, Hay can’t recall discussing it with her friends or colleagues.

“It might be a geographical difference,” Hay said, referring to the whirl of activism around the issue in Northeastern states such as Vermont and Maine.

Currently, such practices are illegal and deemed unsafe by the Food and Drug Administration. Because medicines shipped from other countries are not subject to FDA inspection, their safety and efficacy are not guaranteed by U.S. health officials. But supporters of reimporting drugs from Canada, 80 percent of which are manufactured in the United States, dismiss such allegations.

“Claims of not trusting the quality are unfounded,” said Charles Jensen of Rolla.

Jensen serves as the speaker for the Missouri Silver Haired Legislature. As a member of an elected body created to represent the concerns of senior citizens in Missouri, Jensen said he is skeptical about the issue but understands the financial appeal.

“People are saving a lot of money through mail-order,” he said.

Studies estimate that as many as 1 million U.S. residents purchase drugs from Canada that they would otherwise be unable to afford. And with availability through the Internet and mail-order catalogs, consumers no longer have to cross the border to fill their prescriptions.

Since Canada enacted the Patented Medicines Pricing Review Board in 1987, capping the prices of prescription drugs, the U.S. government has turned a blind eye on Americans who take advantage of Canadian pharmacies. According to PMPRB statistics, the same drugs cost up to 75 percent less in Canada than in the United States. Despite the luster of such potential savings, Hay said she believes drug importation is not the answer.

“American drug companies have to profit so that new drugs can be researched,” she said. “They help us improve our lives.”

Owen Miller, professor emeritus of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering at MU, stressed the importance of educating seniors about the application process. As a representative for the AARP, the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, Miller will lead a senior seminar Friday. He will advise seniors on the technicalities of Medicare Rx cards and on how to decide which cards fit their needs.

“We need to simplify the application process and make sure that all who qualify apply,” Hay said. “I’m just not convinced that our real needs are met in Canada.”

The AARP lecture will be from 10 to 11 a.m. Friday at the Senior Center, 1121 Business Loop 70 E.


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