Have prescription, will travel: Are drug charges creating pharmacy tourism boom?

Madrid government's introduction of prescription surcharges drives locals to seek cheaper medicine outside the region.

Francisco Barona, 70, travels from Madrid to neighboring Castilla-La Mancha to buy his medication to avoid prescription charges.
Francisco Barona, 70, travels from Madrid to neighboring Castilla-La Mancha to buy his medication to avoid prescription charges.LUIS SEVILLANO

The Madrid regional government's introduction of a one-euro surcharge on prescription medicines at the start of the year appears to be creating a new breed of pharmaceutical tourists.

Francisco Barona, a 70-year-old retired plasterer, on Thursday caught the train to travel the 14 kilometers from his home in Alcalá de Henares in the Madrid region to a pharmacy in the town of Azuqueca de Henares in Guadalajara province in Castilla-La Mancha in order to avoid paying the one-euro extra charge on each of the prescription medicines he requires. He bought 13 different medications at a total cost of 12.80 euros. In Madrid he would have paid 21 euros for the same items: 13 euros for the drugs plus eight for the prescriptions - the maximum pharmaceutical copayment charge that can be applied to seniors.

It's embarrassing that I have to compound the personal hardship with a monetary one"

"It is an embarrassment that I have to come here and compound the personal hardship with a monetary one," he says.

Barona, who underwent a knee operation a short while ago and draws a pension of 600 euros a month, had come here with 21 prescriptions in his pocket - the majority for his 69-year-old wife who suffers from numerous ailments, he says. However, not all were available, says pharmacist Sagrario Ortega.

Although it's too early for accurate data, there is talk of a five-percent rise in customers in Azuqueca. "The boom has come this week," say Sonsoles and Noelia of the Antonio López Rodríguez pharmacy, which is situated 200 meters from the station. "At this time we have had a daily average of 20 people; the majority 40 years old and upwards."

The Castilla-La Mancha health department believes the impact of this drug tourism boom will be minimal. Citing the example of Aragon after Catalonia became the first region to apply a one-euro copayment charge, it believes the practice will soon disappear.

The Castilla-La Mancha Regional Board of Pharmacists' Associations does not yet know if sales have increased at outlets in areas bordering Madrid. That is something it will find out when invoicing closes for this month, in the first half of February.

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