Prescription Drug Access Still a Struggle for Many Patients

Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor
Published Online: Thursday, December 22, 2011
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New research shows that although the percentage of Americans who had trouble affording prescription drugs remained level between 2007 and 2010, the number is still significantly higher than it was in 2003.

According to a report from the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC), more than 1 in 8 Americans went without a prescription drug in 2010, with economic hardships and a growing number of individuals without health insurance cited as key factors. The good news, however, is that the number has not continued to drop in the last 3 years.

The most vulnerable individuals—including those who are uninsured, have low incomes, are in fair or poor health, and have multiple chronic conditions—continued to face the most unmet prescription needs, according to findings from HSC’s 2010 Health Tracking Household Survey, a nationally representative survey with information on 17,000 people.

“About 1 out of 2 uninsured people in fair or poor health couldn’t afford a prescription drug in 2010, almost double the rate of insured people in the same health,” said Ellyn R. Boukus, MA, coauthor of the study, in a statement.

Although prescription drug access remained stable for most Americans in recent years, uninsured, working-age adults (aged 19 to 64) saw a significant decrease in unmet prescription drug needs, from 35.9% in 2007 to 29.4% in 2010, according to the study. Some portion of the decrease in access problems likely reflects the fact that fewer uninsured individuals reported visiting a health care provider in 2010 compared with 2007.

Likewise, elderly individuals eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid saw a sharp drop in prescription drug access problems. After doubling between 2003 and 2007, unmet prescription drug needs for dually eligible, elderly Medicare beneficiaries dropped from 21.7% in 2007 to 8.0% in 2010.

Given the large increase in the uninsured population—from 42.8 million in 2007 to 51.7 million in 2010—and financial pressures caused by the economy, the authors noted that it is somewhat surprising that drug affordability problems did not increase.

Other key findings from the study include:
  • In 2010, two-thirds of all Americans—and nearly 90% of seniors—reported taking at least one prescription drug in the past year.
  • The number and percentage of Americans reporting unmet prescription drug needs because of cost concerns remained significantly higher in 2010 compared to 2003 (13% vs. 10%), largely reflecting an increase in access problems for children and working-age adults (aged 19 to 64) between 2003 and 2007.
  • Individuals with private insurance experienced relatively few problems, with only 9.8% of working-age adults and 4.2% of children reporting an unmet prescription need in 2010.
  • Uninsured individuals continued to have the most problems affording prescription drugs. Overall, 27.4% of those who are uninsured reported prescription drug access problems in 2010, which is nearly 3 times the rate for insured people.
  • 69% of uninsured individuals with multiple chronic conditions reported an unmet prescription need because of cost in 2010, compared with 20% of insured people with multiple chronic conditions.
  • In 2010, those with incomes below 200% of poverty—$44,100 for a family of four—were 3.4 times more likely to report drug access problems as those earning 400% of poverty or more (19.3% vs. 5.7%).
For more information on the study, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, click here.

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