BRUNSWICK – A big orange bus featuring “Need Help Paying for Medicine?” and “Help is Here Express” signs rolled into Maine Monday, offering to help those who can’t afford their prescription medications.

But senior advocates working for lower drug costs found irony in the event. The bus is sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a group that represents drug makers and which has a history of suing Maine for trying to lower drug costs. PhRMA also opposes legalizing drug importation from Canada and other countries, where prescriptions cost on average half as much as in the United States.

John Carr is president of the Maine Council of Senior Citizens, which sponsors regular bus trips to Canada so seniors can buy affordable medicine. He called the bus “grandstanding” and said sponsors are trying to divert attention from growing sentiment that Congress should allow consumers to buy less expensive imported drugs.

The 45-foot-long bus visited senior centers in Portland and Brunswick as part of PhRMA’s outreach to help seniors, said Jen Webber, spokeswoman for the “Rx Cares for ME” program.

The bus, which she hopes will soon visit Lewiston and Bangor, is equipped with computers, phones and staff so that when seniors hop on they can see if there are programs to help lower their drug costs, said PhRMA spokeswoman M.J. Fingland.

The program is actually a clearinghouse for a multitude of discount programs offered by various drug companies and state governments, including Maine. Instead of individuals having to contact the individual companies and programs, the bus serves as a one-stop-shopping resource for those with low and moderate incomes without insurance, Fingland said.

In a press release, PhRMA CEO Billy Tauzin said he was thrilled that so many people have responded since the program was launched in 2003 in Maine and a few other states. The program, which has expanded nationally, has matched more than 360,000 people with discounts, Tauzin said.

Dr. Judy Chamberlain of Brunswick said Monday her patients have saved money after calling the toll-free number, 1-888-477-2669, or going to Last week one of her patients discovered he could get his medicine free, and that he qualified for MaineCare, Chamberlain said. “I’m for any Web site that makes it easy for people,” she said.

But senior advocates said PhRMA could help more by lowering drug prices. Carr insisted that the bus tour is “being done because in Congress there’s a strong effort being made to pass this Snowe-Dorgan bill” to legalize prescription imports.

“Last night on ‘60 Minutes’ a vice president for Pfizer said we’re paying too much in the United States, that the high prices aren’t necessary, that all the drugs are routinely made and shipped everywhere. They’re the same drugs,” Carr said.

Instead of offering discounts to some people, drug companies “should sit down and negotiate a price with the government,” Carr said. “That’s the answer, establishing reasonable prices.”

An AARP leader agreed. On one hand, the group welcomes any program that helps anyone get any relief, said AARP Maine Director Jud Dolphin. On the other hand, Dolphin called the bus “curious.”

The AARP monitors prescription prices “and they keep going up at a rapid rate that far exceeds inflation. Somebody has to start calling PhRMA and the drug makers accountable here,” Dolphin said.

Fingland said she could not comment on drug prices, saying that’s up to individual companies.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s re-importation bill was aired in a public hearing in April, but has yet to be debated in the Senate, said Snowe spokesman Preston Hartman.

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