An O.C. couple do the math: Same drug is far cheaper in Canada

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A 90-DAY SUPPLY of the asthma drug Advair costs $1,240 in the U.S. and about $250 in Canada. (Bloomberg News / April 25, 2007)

Bent and Henni Christensen consider themselves patriotic Americans and strong supporters of Medicare.

Nevertheless, the Huntington Beach couple buy most of their prescription drugs from an online Canadian pharmacy at prices much lower than in the United States.

Bent Christensen, 78, said he appreciates the savings and also the opportunity to save Medicare some money. "It's not right," he said, to stick the federal program with bloated drug costs.

It's not, and it's another reason, along with sky-high charges for treatment and medical devices, that U.S. healthcare prices are the highest in the world, typically running about twice what people are charged in other developed countries.

Prescription drugs are an especially fertile source of profits. Captive markets of sick people may have no choice but to pay whatever is charged by drug companies.

When Christensen and I spoke, he was particularly incensed about prices charged for Advair, a popular asthma medication required by his 77-year-old wife.

In January, the biggest manager of prescription drug benefits for insurers and drugstores, a company called Express Scripts, said it would no longer reimburse Advair purchases because the drug had become too expensive.

U.S. sales of Advair subsequently tumbled 19%, and the Christensens had every reason to think Advair's manufacturer, the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, would cut prices to keep users from switching to cheaper pills.

Instead, the price of Advair kept going up.

This week, Express Scripts said it had cut a new deal with Glaxo and would start reimbursing Advair purchases again next year. It's unclear how the accord will affect prices. Express Scripts said it will classify Advair as a "non-preferred" drug, meaning that patient co-pays will be higher than for preferred meds.

Some cockiness on Glaxo's part was understandable. About 15.5 million prescriptions for Advair were written between April 2013 and March of this year, according to IMS Health, a market researcher.

This makes Advair one of the 10 most prescribed drugs in the country, with annual U.S. sales topping $5 billion.

In January, the Christensens were charged $1,036.16 for a three-month supply of Advair.

As of March, the cost of the medicine rose nearly 20% to $1,240.40.

Uncle Sam — that is, Medicare — pays most of that amount. But Christensen told me this doesn't make such high prices easier to swallow.

"What a waste of Medicare funds," he said.

So Christensen did what many Americans do in the face of soaring healthcare costs: He took his business north of the border.

For years he'd been buying some of his wife's other prescription drugs from an online Canadian pharmacy, Canada Drugs. With their doctor's approval, he added Advair to the list.

What cost $1,240 in the United States ran about $250 in Canada — even less than their U.S. copay.

It goes without saying that there's no economic rationale for such a wide gap in pricing.

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