Carla Coco-Boutte stepped off the train in Vancouver, British Columbia, for a brief Canadian excursion, but she wasn't looking for the typical souvenirs such as aboriginal carvings or smoked salmon. The 51-year-old former airline employee planned to return to her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., with an armload of prescription drugs she bought at a fraction of what she would pay at home.
"It's the only way I can survive," said Coco-Boutte, who estimates her monthly drug costs at around $1,000. "I'm on a limited income. Without benefits, I would have to keep doing this."
She was among about two dozen Americans who chartered a two-car train for a four-day whistlestop trip from San Diego to Vancouver to buy medication and bring pressure on the U.S. government to negotiate with manufacturers for lower prices, as is done in Canada.
The protest, which included stops in cities from Los Angeles to Seattle, generated some ambivalence north of the border.
A nurses union and other supporters believe the increasing cross-border trade in prescription drugs shows the dangers of privatizing healthcare in Canada, but a pharmacists group says it could sap resources intended for Canadians and generate a pharmaceutical industry backlash.
This trip, dubbed the Rx Express, was organized by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonpartisan lobby group based in Santa Monica, Calif.
Spokesman Jerry Flanagan said visits were arranged with doctors in Vancouver to verify the visitors' drug needs and write prescriptions. He would not name the doctors, citing pressure in the medical community not to help U.S. drug-seekers.
The primary mission was to help convince U.S. politicians "that we shouldn't have to travel to Canada to get the lower-cost drugs that we need," Flanagan said.
The foundation wants the U.S. government to cut Medicare costs -- and the expenses of patients, many of them seniors -- by negotiating bulk-purchasing agreements with pharmaceutical companies.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opposes commercial prescription drug imports, contending it cannot guarantee their safety. Individuals, however, may buy up to as much as three months of medication for personal use with a U.S. prescription.
The result has been a quasi-underground industry for helping families, unions and various governmental jurisdictions save money through drugs purchases from Canada, often via Internet pharmacies.
The cross-border trade is estimated at around $1 billion annually, said Barry Power, director of practice development for the Canadian Pharmacists Association.
Flanagan said one out of four U.S. seniors must chose between buying prescription medication and paying for food or rent.
Coco-Boutte said Medicare doesn't come close to paying the cost of drugs she needs for various ailments.
As a university student, her student drug plan has a $10 deductible but is capped at $2,000, about two months worth of medication, she said.
At U.S. prices, "I can't take everything, and I can't take the full dose that the doctors prescribe," she said.