Canadians giving up food, heat to pay for prescription drugs: UBC study

Photo credit: Charles Williams/Flickr. This image has been cropped.

More than 900,000 Canadians reduced their spending on basic necessities like food and heat to pay for prescription drugs in 2016, according to new research by a team from the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, McMaster University, and The University of Toronto.

Using data from the Statistics Canada Canadian Community Health Survey, the study estimated that 730,000 Canadians reduced their spending on food and 238,000 reduced their spending on home heating due to the cost of prescription drugs.

“We knew lots of Canadians were having trouble paying for medication. Now we know they are trading off other everyday necessities in order to pay for prescription drugs,” said study lead author Michael Law, Canada Research Chair in Access to Medicines and associate professor in UBC’s school of population and public health.

An estimated 1.69 million Canadians, or 8.2 per cent of those who received a prescription in 2016, did not fill prescriptions, skipped doses, or otherwise did not take medication as prescribed because of the cost, the study found.

“Despite Canada’s reputation of having a universal healthcare system, the fact that so many people cannot afford their medicines is a sign that people are falling through the cracks,” Law said.

The study also found that not taking medicines due to cost had consequences for other parts of the health-care system. An estimated 374,000 Canadians reported using extra health-care services because they found medication unaffordable, including more than 300,000 people who reported visiting the doctor again and 93,000 who went to the emergency room.

Young adults, people with lower incomes, and those with no prescription drug insurance were more likely to report problems affording their medicines. These same characteristics also predicted additional healthcare usage and reduced spending on basic necessities. Indigenous people (i.e., those who self-identified as “Aboriginal” on the survey) were almost twice as likely to report affordability challenges, and females were twice as likely as males to report additional health system use as a result of struggling to afford medication.

Law said a range of policy issues were likely at play, including structural barriers in the health-care system such as lack of coverage, and that Canada needs to consider how to provide people with improved access to prescription drugs.

“These results suggest better coverage for these groups would lead to fewer Canadians being unable to afford their medicines and likely improve their health as a result,” said Law.

The study found drugs foregone due to cost were used for a wide variety of health conditions, with drugs that treat depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions being the most common. Nearly one-third of respondents reported the most recently foregone prescription would have cost $50 or less, suggesting that it was not just the most expensive medications that Canadians were unable to afford.

The study was published in CMAJ Open.

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