Report: Costs keep millions from filling needed prescriptions

By: - December 6, 2021 6:01 am

Pharmacist with a shelf full of prescription drugs. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of prescription drugs led nearly 13 million Americans to forgo medications that they had been prescribed, according to a new report.

Uninsured adults were the hardest hit, found the study, produced by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. The report says that 9.5% of people who were uninsured for an entire year had prescriptions that they did not fill. For people uninsured for part of the year, the rate was even higher, at 11.6%.

Among Medicare recipients, 4.9% had unmet prescription needs, the report says. Among non-elderly Medicaid recipients, the rate was 5.6%. Adults with private insurance were the least affected, but they weren’t insulated from the problem; 3% report they did not fill all of their prescriptions.

“Though most adults do not face difficulty affording prescription drugs, millions delayed getting or went without medications because of the cost in the years just before the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report states. That includes more than 6 million adults who had private insurance or were insured through Medicare.

“Most of these adults have been diagnosed with one or more chronic conditions, making the affordability of prescription drugs a critical factor in their long-term health,” the report states.

The report was drawn from data collected in the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, which polls U.S. households. The data covered the years 2018-2019.

The authors concluded that policies to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, limit the out-of-pocket costs that patients pay and expand health insurance “would help millions afford and access needed prescriptions they are currently unable to pay for.”

In an introduction, the authors note that at least two proposals that have been part of the in the budget reconciliation Build Back Better Act currently being debated in the U.S. Senate could help reduce the cost to patients of prescription drugs: a measure to authorize the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare and one to expand health insurance coverage, reducing out-of-pocket drug costs.

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.