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Border Pharmacies Lure Seniors

June 1, 1999

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) _ Nearly $200 worth of prescription drugs bulged from Barry Villafana’s backpack after he left Farmacia Americana, one of a dozen drugstores drawing elderly Americans across the border.

He drives 480 miles round trip from his Santa Barbara, Calif., home to Tijuana every two months to stock up on medicine for his high cholesterol and arthritis.

``The amount of drugs I could have bought with this money back home would barely fill a fanny pack,″ the 69-year-old retired factory worker said.

Americans have long crossed into Mexico for inexpensive car repairs, discount clothes and cheap liquor. Now they’re driving over the border to fill prescriptions, too.

``The reason we’re seeing a growing trend for seniors to go across the border to purchase their prescriptions is that it costs a lot less,″ said state Assemblyman Martin Gallegos, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee. ``They’re trying every way possible to cut the out-of-pocket expenses for their medications.″

Border officials have no figures on such visits but say the trend appears to be growing.

Villafana is covered by Medicare and lives on a fixed income of about $800 a month, barely enough to cover his $500 rent and other bills.

``Believe me, this isn’t any sightseeing trip,″ Villafana said before hailing a cab back to the border, where he had parked his car.

Former teacher’s aide Dottie Mason, 68, began making the 280-mile round trip from her Los Angeles home two years ago after the cost of her diabetes medication increased so much she had trouble paying her bills.

``I was trying to do some hard scrunching with the numbers, mailing payments until the last possible minute,″ Mason said.

Drugs abroad often cost half as much as they do in the United States, according to the advocacy group Public Citizen. The average retail price of Prozac is $34 a month abroad and $72 in the United States. A month’s supply of cholesterol-lowering Zocor is $44 abroad and as much as $104 in the United States.

Those looking for a bargain in Mexico don’t have to go far. Colorful, billboard-size signs in English direct people to a string of pharmacies just 100 yards from the border. The signs advertise the best deals on everything from Viagra to Prozac.

U.S. law allows Americans to buy medications abroad as long as the drugs are prescribed by a U.S. doctor, intended for personal use and transported in the original container.

``Those agents don’t give me any hassles. I have all my paperwork in order,″ said 73-year-old Ernest Ruffino of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., patting his jacket pocket as he left a pharmacy where he bought medicine to treat his arthritis.

Gallegos warned that cheaper drugs may also mean poorer quality, creating a health risk for the buyer.

``Is that what we want in the United States? And especially because we can’t provide a program to meet their needs as society?″ he asked.

He is sponsoring a bill that would offer prescription drugs at wholesale prices to Medicare recipients whose health insurance doesn’t cover prescriptions.

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