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Utah offers to pay public employees to fill their prescriptions in Mexico

File photo showing the path to the Mexican border. (AP Photo/Matt York)

With drug prices in the United States soaring far higher than its neighbors, one insurance provider has a unique idea to keep those costs down. They’re offering free transportation and a cash payout of $500 to any customers who will fill their prescriptions in Tijuana, Mexico.

It’s called the “Pharmacy Tourism Program”, a plan to cut down on medication costs by encouraging Utahns to take their business out of the United States. And it’s being offered by PEHP: the official medical insurance provider for Utah’s public employees.

The Pharmacy Tourism Program

PEHP Pharmacy Tourism Program

An advertisement for PEHP’s Pharmacy Tourism Program. (PEHP / Twitter)

The Pharmacy Tourism Program isn’t an entirely new idea. PEHP has been offering free airfare for any members willing to fly out of the country to get medical operations and prescriptions for some time now. This is just the first time that they’ve actually offered to pay them to do it.

Any PEHP member in need of one of the 13 high-cost drugs approved on the plan will be flown out to San Diego, driven through the border into Mexico, and brought right to a high-end pharmacy in Tijuana to pick up their medication.

Customers are allowed filling up to 90-days worth of prescriptions per visit, meaning they’ll have to make the trip about four times a year. But PEHP is hoping that, to their clients, the trip to Tijuana will seem like a free vacation – especially since they’re offering $500 to anyone who’ll make the trip.

It isn’t cheap to fly to Mexico, but the same drugs are so much more expensive in the United States that it actually costs less money to travel across the border than it does to fill your prescription at the pharmacy next door.

A three-month supply of the most expensive drug on their plan, Avenox, costs over $20,000 in the United States, but only about $6,600 in a clinic in Tijuana. That means that PEHP can save more than $13,000 when they send their customers to fill their prescriptions in Mexico – far more than the cost of airfare.

Taking advantage of the program is profitable for the members, too. If a PEHP client were to make use of every Pharmacy Tourism incentive PEHP offers, they could bring in as much as $3,900 in cash rewards each year.

Utah’s solution to rising drug costs

File photo of Rep. Norm Thurston, the lawmaker who passed the bill encouraging PEHP to reward customers for finding a cheaper provider. (Ravell Call, KSL, File)

The Pharmacy Tourism Program isn’t something PEHP snuck by the legislature. It’s something they’ve been actively encouraged to introduce through a bill passed in March of this year.

The “Health Insurance Right To Shop” bill, sponsored by Rep. Norm Thurston and Sen. Todd Weiler, explicitly requires Utah’s Public Employee’s benefit and Insurance Program to offer a “savings reward” program to customers who take their business to cheaper providers.

But the cheapest providers aren’t in the United State. They’re in other countries, where the costs of some prescription drugs are far, far lower than they are in the US.

Rep. Norm Thurston believes that the Pharmacy Tourism Program perfectly follows the spirit of his bill and has praised PEHP’s plan, saying:

“Why wouldn’t we pay $300 to go to San Diego, drive across to Mexico, and save the system tens of thousands of dollars? If it can be done safely, we should be all over that.”

He doesn’t plan on stopping there, either. Rep. Thurston has told Deseret News that he plans on pushing another bill in January that will encourage providers to import certain prescription medicines in from Canada.

It may seem strange for a Utah lawmaker to be pushing so hard to get Utahns to buy their medication from outside of the United States, but to Thurston, the issue seems simple.

“We’re paying more for drugs in the U.S. than they are in other countries,” he says. Until that changes, bringing those medications in other countries into Utah is just an effective way to save Utahns money.

More to the story

When Dave & Dujanovic talked about this story on KSL Newsradio, Debbie Dujanovic revealed that she’s crossed the border to Mexico for prescriptions herself.

If you missed hearing what she had to say, you can still hear her story on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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