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Rx:Canada

By Sharon Salyer
Herald Writer

SURREY, British Columbia – Mary Bunich couldn’t help it. When a white-coated pharmacist announced the total on her and her husband’s prescription bill, the Seattle resident’s eyes filled with tears.

“It just kind of hit me,” she said later in explaining the mixture of surprise and joy she felt. “I couldn’t believe medicine here is so much cheaper.

By traveling to Canada, where most medications cost less, she estimates she saved $400 compared with what she would have paid in Washington for the same prescriptions.

Bunich, 78, and her husband, Peter, 83, joined a busload of seniors this week on a charter excursion to Canada with the same mission: saving money on medications that for many are literally lifesaving.

In the last six months, the number of Americans making the same journey has increased from a trickle to a tidal wave as the savings that often range from one-third to one-half have become more widely publicized.

With some seniors on multiple medications — sometimes eight to 10 each day — and the cost of each pill not infrequently hitting $1 to $2 each, savings can compound with each 90-day prescription that is filled.

Doctorsolve Health Care Clinic, a 1,100-square-foot office in Surrey’s Windsor Square, is surrounded by the restaurants, clothing and coffee shops typical of suburban strip malls. All clinic doctors are experienced physicians graduating from Canadian or British medical schools.

“To be very honest, we want to make sure we don’t appear to be gouging people,” Assad said. “They’re all seniors.” The charge to see a physician is $39 US

Some American seniors are so desperate to save money on prescription medications that are so expensive in the US that they’re cutting the required dosage in half, Somani said.

“We had a lady breaking her tablets in quarters,” instead of halves, he said of one of the patients who came to the clinic this week. “This was her blood-pressure medication. She had been doing that, probably, for many years.”

The clinic has five offices consisting of a desk for office staff and two chairs. Each patient’s file is reviewed before their arrival and again when they are seen at the clinic. Appointments last about 10 minutes. Patients are asked about their health conditions and previous experience with their prescription medications.

Sally Burklund, 68, who formerly worked as a registered nurse for Providence Seattle Medical Center, said she spends up to $500 a month on medications.

“I don’t go anywhere or do anything,” she said of the hit it takes on her budget.

Tuesday’s trip saved her about $600, she said, adding, “I will be back.”

In all the national commentary about the cost of prescription drug prices, there is little attention on one cross-border fact: While drugs are often significantly cheaper in Canada, the exchange rate alone plays a big role in savings.

Betty Lewis, another Seattle senior on the Canadian trip, found out exactly what that meant on Wednesday, after a call from her credit card company.

“Why is a bill originally rung up as $802 changed to $545?” they asked.

The answer: The exchange rate.

In fact, about half of all savings Americans achieve by traveling to Canada for prescriptions is from this fact alone, Assad said. Other factors include strict price controls by the Canadian government.

Most, but not all, drugs prescribed in the US can be bought in Canada.

Orrin Stromswold of Bellevue looked through his bag of prescriptions that cost him $602 Canadian (about $390 US). Among them: a three-month supply of a heart medication that costs $185 in the US He paid $135 in Canadian dollars, he said, (approximately $88 US). “It’s great.”

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