It was a bus trip to Canada with senior citizens to get lower-priced prescriptions that sent Elizabeth Wennar into action.
Wennar, the CEO of United Health Alliance, a physician-hospital organization in Bennington, Vt., started working with Canadian pharmacies last year to help American patients get lower-cost medications.
The alliance works with two pharmacies in Canada. Physicians in the United States fax prescriptions to the pharmacies, and patients buy three-month supplies of maintenance medications. The drugs are shipped across the border to the alliance and distributed to patients. Costs are significantly lower due to Canadian price controls.
The effort won a thumbs-up from Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has tried to start a state prescription pool to buy drugs at a discounted rate. The plan suffered a setback in June when a federal appeals court ruled Dean had improperly applied Medicaid laws.
The alliance tracked prescription costs on 145 people for six months. Those people had prescriptions for which they would have paid $81,000 in the United States. By getting them filled in Canada, the prescriptions cost $22,000.
The partnership doesn't track how many physicians are using the system, Wennar says. But within a few months of the inception of the program, residents of New Hampshire, New Jersey and other states were using the system.
"We're probably fielding upwards of 100 calls a day," she says. That statistic doesn't include hits on the alliance's Web site.
"This is not the answer. This is not a perfect way," Wennar admits. "But people are desperately trying to figure out how to get their (medications)."