Whether Americans opt for Nexium or Prevacid to treat their heartburn, they could have bought the drugs in Canada for less than half the price.
As Congress debates whether to allow foreign pharmacies to fill prescriptions, The Associated Press surveyed comparable U.S. and Canadian prices for 10 popular drugs and found the Canadian prices were 33 percent to 80 percent cheaper.
For example, a three-month supply of cholesterol-controlling Lipitor, the world's best-selling prescription drug, was 37 percent cheaper in Canada. The anti-depressant Paxil cost about half as much as in the United States, while the arthritis drug Vioxx cost 58 percent less. The biggest price difference was for the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal, 80 percent cheaper in Canada.
The figures are from a check of drug prices on Internet sites maintained by American and Canadian pharmacies.
"You're talking about a $40 billion savings, just in what the government dispenses," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who withheld her support from the House version of a Medicare prescription drug bill until she received assurances from Republican leaders that they would address importation in the final legislation.
"We have senior citizens breaking pills in half and having to choose whether to buy food or medicine," the Cape Girardeau Republican said. "This is one way to bring fairness to the system, and also cost containment."
Whether to allow Americans to import drugs from Canada and other countries where governments have imposed price controls is among the outstanding issues as lawmakers race to come up with a bill before the end of the year to create a prescription drug benefit for seniors.
Both the Senate and House have passed versions of the bill, which is currently in conference committee awaiting a joint version.
Bringing prescription drugs into this country from abroad is now illegal. But the federal government has not tried to block individuals from traveling to Canada to fill their prescriptions.
With Americans facing skyrocketing pharmacy bills, buying drugs in Canada has become a hot political issue, no longer confined to border states where busloads of Americans could make a quick trip north to pick up their prescriptions.
The idea of buying in Canada is favored by a majority of members in the House of Representatives and several Democratic and Republican governors.
Illinois would save about $91 million a year by buying prescription drugs from Canada, according to report commissioned by Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The state spent $340 million on prescription drugs for its employees and retirees last year, up 15 percent from a year earlier.
Despite the popular support for allowing imports, the congressional measure is being resisted by politically powerful drug manufacturers as well as the Bush administration and influential lawmakers in both parties, mainly citing on safety grounds.
The Food and Drug Administration has said it is especially concerned about the safety of Internet drug sales.
Sen. John Breaux, D-La., one of the congressional negotiators, said Canada itself is not the problem so much as other countries where the drugs are produced.
"It is not an answer to this problem to say go buy drugs from Canada which may be coming from Pakistan and India and China and all those countries we have health concerns about," Breaux said.
Federal law allows for importation, but only after the secretary of Health and Human Services has certified that public health would not be endangered.
Southeast Missourian staff writer Callie Clark contributed to this story.