Americans Struggling to Pay for Prescription Drugs

A ‘Consumer Reports’ survey finds people under age 65 are skipping drugs due to costs.

As the economy falters, more Americans cannot afford to fill their prescription drugs. (Photo: Jill Fromer/Getty Images)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

Americans are skimping on their healthcare needs even more than last year, the result of a struggling economy that's forcing people to continue to cut back on prescription drugs, medical tests and doctors visits, according to a survey released today.

The annual Consumer Reports prescription drug poll found that people under age 65 who lack health insurance for medications have had a sharp drop in healthcare utilization. A whopping 81 percent said they had declined a medical test or procedure, postponed a doctor's visit or chose not to fill a prescription because of cost concerns.

In last year's survey, 27 percent of people under age 65 who lacked prescription-drug coverage said they had not filled their prescriptions due to costs. That ratio surged to 45 percent in this year's poll. The survey included 1,158 adults 18 years or older.

"It's possible that for the majority of Americans, as the economy continues to be sluggish, they are becoming more and more strapped," Lisa Gill, Consumer Reports' editor of prescription drugs, told TakePart. "We use the word crisis. Eighty-one percent of people skipping some medical care is a crisis."

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Almost half of U.S. adults take prescription drugs, and the average number of drugs taken is four. Prescription drugs are common in all age groups, researchers found. Even one-quarter of people ages 18 to 39 take two prescription medications.

Researchers say an economy laboring to recover from a deep and prolonged recession is having a significant impact on Americans' health. Besides the decline in prescription-drug adherence, the poll showed that 62 percent of those surveyed who were under age 65 and lacked insurance for medications also passed up a medical test because of cost—a 29 percent hike from the 2011 poll. Almost two-thirds said they postponed a doctor's appointment to save money—up 16 percent from last year—and 51 percent skipped a medical test or procedure due to cost, up 12 percent.

The high cost of healthcare is simply too much for many Americans' budgets, Gill says. Consumers with insurance spend an average of $63 per month, out of pocket, for prescription drugs, while uninsured people spend an average of $91 out of pocket, she adds.

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It's not that Americans don't value healthcare and scrimp on their medications while spending in other areas, she says. The survey paints a portrait of people cutting corners in all areas of their budgets. Among people under age 65 who lack prescription drug coverage, 58 percent said they spend less on entertainment and 46 percent spend less on groceries.

But Gill says that cutting back on needed healthcare often leads to higher costs in the long run.

"If someone doesn't take those basic medications, they put themselves at risk for more health problems," she says. "Then you're talking about costs reaching into the six figures to try to fix that. We all end up paying for that. So there is a concrete reason to help consumers find low-cost solutions."

Gill suggests talking to your doctor about the cost of medications. That's apparently something people are reluctant to do. The survey showed only 52 percent were comfortable talking about drug costs and personal finances with their doctors. Because of that hesitation, only 6 percent of people learned about the cost of their medications from their doctors. The rest experienced sticker shock while picking up their prescriptions at the pharmacy.

Gill also recommends people use generic drugs whenever possible and even talk to their doctors about the possibility of replacing some prescription drugs with over-the-counter medications. The survey showed that doctors recommended generic drugs only about half of the time, and 42 percent of the poll respondents said their doctors have never recommended generics.

Other tips for stretching prescription drug dollars include:

  • In the doctor's office, ask for a generic drug. If a generic isn't available for a drug you know you'll be taking a long time, ask if the doctor can prescribe a generic drug that is therapeutically equivalent
  • Fill prescriptions at big-box or chain pharmacies that offer $4 or $5 generic drug coverage. Ask these stores if they also have a discount-drug membership program. Most do, although the details vary from store to store.
  • If a $4 or $5 generic drug isn't on one store's discounted-drugs formulary, check other stores. These lists vary from place to place.
  • If you use an independent pharmacy, try negotiating. Tell the pharmacist when you find the same drug cheaper at another pharmacy.
  • If you have to take a brand-name drug and lack adequate drug coverage, check with the manufacturer of the medication to see if the company offers any financial assistance.

Have you missed taking medications because of drug costs? Let us know in the comments.

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