Friday, April 22, 2011

Going Broke Getting Meds: Location, Location, Location

"Friends held fundraisers, she scrounged anti-nausea medication ($23 a pill) from other patients...When her cancer treatment was done, Ms. Easley was $26,000 in debt. Twelve years later: 'I’m all clear of cancer, but I’m still paying for my cancer treatment'" -- The Globe and Mail

Still curious about what happened when Canadians had high drug costs, I asked my cousin Catherine who has lived in Canada for many years. She showed me an article in The Globe and Mail entitled, “Breaking the bank to stay alive”.

Sure enough, there it was. In some provinces, the lack of a government prescription drug plan can cause hardships similar to those we hear about in the U.S.

The article tells the tale of a young woman named Julia Easley in New Brunswick who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and did not have private prescription drug insurance. All her physician visits and hospital care were covered by the government plan. However, the medications she needed to take while not in the hospital were not covered. Friends held fundraisers for her but by the time Ms. Easley was finished with her cancer treatment, she was $26,000 in debt.

In British Columbia and several other provinces, Ms. Easley would have had most of her prescriptions covered. In fact, since she had just graduated from college and probably wasn't making much money, she would have had 70% coverage of her medications until she had spent 2% of her income and 100% coverage after that through British Columbia's PharmaCare. But in New Brunswick, there is essentially no public prescription drug program and she was out of luck.

Cousin Catherine was quite reticent about sharing this newspaper article with me. She’s a big fan of the Canadian health care system. “Would you like to go get coffee with my pharmacist friend and me on Friday?” she suggested, hoping to present a more positive side of the picture. Sounded good to me.

Friday rolled around and I arrived at the appointed time at the crowded little deli out in Point Grey. I hastily greeted Catherine, ordered up a London Fog (my new favorite tea preparation), and within a few minutes, Safouh, the pharmacist, and I were settling into our interview.

I got straight to the point: Did he have customers who couldn't afford their medications? His answer was no.

I mentioned the problems with affording prescription drugs in other provinces and the proposals I had read for creating a national catastrophic drug program. Did he think there was a real possibility of enacting such legislation? Once again, his answer was no. Too expensive. Not going to happen.

Safouh brought up the fact that most drugs cost considerably less in Canada than in the US. We've all heard about this, as in US seniors going to Canada to buy their prescriptions. In order to get some exact prices on a couple of randomly selected drugs, I followed Safouh back to his charming, old-fashioned neighborhood pharmacy.

What about the brand name cholesterol drug Lipitor? A hundred tablets cost $184.43 at Safouh's pharmacy. I called my old-fashioned neighborhood pharmacy back in LA, and found the price of a hundred tablets was $424. For Trazadone, a generic form of the anti-depressant Deseryl, $33.26 for a hundred tablets in Vancouver - $85 in LA.

The customers started lining up at Safouh's pharmacy counter and I hit the road. My impression of Canada's prescription drug situation? In many provinces good but for the country as a whole, room for improvement. My impression of the US prescription drug situation? Don't get me started, honey.

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