MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota senior citizens' group that for a dozen years organized regular trips north to Canada to buy cheaper prescription drugs may have made its last run.
On Friday, the Minnesota Senior Federation's bus ferried 26 customers to a pharmacy in Winnipeg, where government controls keep prices lower than in the United States.
But a new Medicare drug benefit for older and disabled Americans, plus a stronger Canadian dollar, have slashed in half what had been $1 billion in annual cross-border sales. Half of Canada's 140 or so mail-order pharmacies have gone out of business.
Still, Senior Federation executive director Lee Graczyk said people "are still getting gouged on drug prices."
Federation members could still see the benefits when they picked up their orders at a storefront pharmacy: Three months worth of 42 prescriptions, bought for $6,605 - a savings, they estimate, of about 40 percent from Twin Cities retail prices.
The bus trips started in 1995, but became a hot ticket in 2001 when newly elected U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., pledged his Senate salary to fund them. There were about 30 trips in the past six years.
The money ended when Dayton didn't seek reelection last year. Friday's trip cost $10,000, with no charge to riders, and was paid for with funds left over from Dayton's largesse. Graczyk said there's some money left, but no new trips are scheduled.
"You know, these trips are not cost-effective," Graczyk said. "It's far cheaper to use the federation website to order drugs. But we've done them to make a point: Given the vast wealth of the United States, you shouldn't have to drive eight hours to buy affordable drugs."
For some seniors, the new Medicare drug benefit has made trips to Canada unnecessary. But its so-called "doughnut hole" in coverage, the portion of plans where the user must pick up the whole cost of prescriptions, continues to make Canadian suppliers attractive to some Americans.
One bus rider, 74-year-old Adrienne Ratliff of Minneapolis, filled only her four most expensive prescriptions in Canada, leaving the rest to be covered by her UCare Minnesota insurer.
"I've got to try to keep those costs down," she said. "Last year I financed the last of my doughnut hole costs on my credit card, and I really don't want to do that this year."
Drug manufacturers have tried to shut down the Canadian pharmacies serving Americans, many of them online. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned such drugs could be fake or tainted, but so far there have been no report of either problems.
When U.S. drugmakers threatened to cut off supplies to wholesalers who sold to the Internet pharmacies, the pharmacies looked abroad for drugs and have taken orders from the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Australia, New Zealand and Spain.
Connie Rance, 67, of Minneapolis, will be affected by the doughnut hole in a few months and said she was glad to save $200 on two drugs she bought in Canada.
"I don't know if this is the last federation bus trip or not," Rance said. "I hope not. But I'm glad I came. And when I go home, I know some friends who should hear about this drug business with Canada."