When Maine seniors started boarding buses for Canada more than 20 years ago, the outrageous cost of prescription drugs became national news.

They weren’t just making a political statement. They were really filling prescriptions, buying the same life-saving medicines on the other side of the border that they could not afford to buy here.

It was scandalous in those days to hear from people who would cut their pills in half instead of taking the prescribed dose, or choose between filling a prescription and buying food while the drugmakers raked in profits. And it should be scandalous today when we hear the same kinds of stories. There have been numerous efforts since the late 1990s, including the creation of Medicare Part D, an optional insurance policy that covers some prescription-drug costs, but the fundamental problem remains the same.

Why are drugs more affordable in Canada? Canada regulates drug prices, and the United States doesn’t. So even when you are buying an American-made product, you pay much less for it in Canada. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, has introduced two bills that would take the bus-trip concept to bigger level.

L.D. 1272 would create a wholesale importation program for the whole state, to give Mainers access to the drugs at Canadian prices, typically 30 percent less than in the States. The other bill, L.D. 1387, would create a program for individuals to purchase drugs from Canada without violating federal law.

Neither of these approaches is perfect. For one thing, Canada has the highest drug prices in the developed world after the United States. The price controls in other countries are much more effective at making prescription medications widely affordable.

That’s one of the reasons given by the pharmaceutical industry for charging such high prices in the United States. They claim that because their revenues are limited in other countries, they have to charge more here to make enough money to afford the trial-and-error of developing new drugs. But they neglect to point out that domestic sales also contribute to high profit margins and lucrative executive compensation. And it’s not a free market for their customers, who often can’t refuse to buy without putting their health at risk, and can’t always switch to a competitor’s product because many of the most effective drugs are patent protected.

Buying more drugs from Canada won’t solve the underlying problems that U.S. consumers face, created by the federal government’s refusal to do what other nations do to protect the health of their people and control prices. But until Washington decides to act, there are a few things that states can do.

The bus trips to Canada called attention to the problem two decades ago. Jackson’s bills to bring the whole state on a virtual bus ride across the border could again put this issue at the center of the national debate, while providing Mainers with some relief from high drug prices.

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