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ECU study reports RX drugs too costly to many retirees

(June 15, 1997)   —   Thirty percent of older adults cannot afford prescription drugs, and some of them will turn to unhealthful practices to keep medical costs down, according to a new study by East Carolina University researchers.

Sociologist Jim Mitchell and anthropologist Holly Mathews, both with the ECU Center on Aging, collected information from over 600 eastern North Carolina residents aged 66 and older. Mitchell and Mathews found that over 30 percent of the people that take prescription drugs have difficulty paying for them.

Medicare, the federal health insurance program for older adults, does not pay for prescription drugs and Medicaid, the federal program that pays for health care for people who are financially needy, pays only after a large deductible is met.

The ECU researchers said 10 percent of the older people who have difficulty paying for their drugs borrow money from family members or have members of their family pay for their prescriptions. About 15 percent keep their expenses down by taking less medicine than prescribed or by going without their medications altogether.

Some will buy part of a prescription instead of all of it. At times they will take the medicine they think is most important or will use the medicine only when they have symptoms.

"All of these strategies to meet the expense of prescription drugs compromise the effectiveness of the drugs in controlling the symptoms and progression of chronic diseases," Mitchell said.

As a result, he said, there is a greater likelihood that these people will show up in hospital emergency rooms or other urgent care centers.

"Because we restrict Medicare and Medicaid benefits and place the burden of drug costs on older adults and their families, we ultimately pay much more for emergency medical or premature nursing home care," said Mitchell.

The research project, according to the researchers, may be the first of its kind to explore the strategies that older adults use in paying for prescriptions drugs. The Agency for Health Care Policy and Research of the National Institutes of Health funded the study.

Mitchell, the primary investigator on the project, will present the results in June at the meeting of the Association for Health Services Research in Chicago.


Contact: ECU News Bureau | 252-328-6481