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Utah is paying public employees to avoid high U.S. drug prices by buying them in Mexico

Ann Lovell stands at the security checkpoint before her flight from Salt Lake City International Airport to San Diego. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Want to buy prescription drugs at a lower cost?

Utah’s public employees are traveling to Mexico, where they can pick up specialty medications at about half the price charged in the United States.

The cost-saving measure, “Rx Tourism,” has already been used by 10 Utah residents. The state covers airfares for the patient and a companion, and offers a $500 cash incentive for each trip.

“It was a no-brainer,” Ann Lovell said to The Salt Lake Tribune. Lovell has traveled to Hospital Angeles in Tijuana numerous times to pick up Enbrel for rheumatoid arthritis.

Medical tourism has been a common practice for Americans seeking procedures not covered by their insurance, but this type of pharma tourism is relatively new. It’s also different from the “buyer-beware” market for medical treatments and procedures.

“At the end of the day…we’re talking about the same drug,” Chet Loftis, director of the Utah public employee insurer PEHP, said in the article.

The drug costs can be 40 to 60 percent of the U.S. list price.

So far, the state has saved $225,000 on drugs bought in Mexico by patients who require specialty drugs that treat autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis. PEHP has identified these drugs as having the most potential for savings.

“At the end of the day…we’re talking about the same drug,”

Though these specialty drugs make up about 2 percent of all drugs prescribed, in 2018 they accounted for about half the money spent on prescription medications in the country.

State Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said in an interview with National Public Radio last year that he hoped for savings of at least $1 million with the new program. Now PEHP is expanding the travel incentive to cover Vancouver, Canada, which has a clinic right inside the airport.

There’s also a potential for savings even if you don’t use the program. Curry Willix, founder of Medical Travel Option, told the Tribune that if one person’s major health expense can be reduced, it can keep premiums lower for everyone, especially at a small business.

Congress released a study in September of last year that found American’s “pay on average nearly four times more for drugs than other countries – in some cases, 67 times more for the same drug.”

Have you traveled to another country to save money on a prescription drug? Share your story with Voices for Affordable Health.