Many Canadians borrowing money to pay for prescription drugs

An estimated 731,000 Canadians have to borrow money in order to pay for drugs prescribed by their physician, according to new research from the University of British Columbia.

The study, published today in CMAJ Open, is the first to examine why and how many Canadians are borrowing to pay for prescription drugs. The researchers found that Canadians who reported borrowing tended to be younger, had lower household income, chronic medical conditions, and no prescription drug insurance.

Ashra Kolhatkar

“We knew that many Canadians cannot afford their prescription drugs. These new findings suggest that many people are going into debt to cover the costs of their prescription medications every year,” said the study’s lead author Ashra Kolhatkar, a research coordinator at UBC’s Centre for Health Service and Policy Research (CHSPR).

Their analysis revealed that an estimated 2.5 per cent of survey respondents—equivalent to 731,000 Canadians nationwide—reported having borrowed money to pay for prescription drugs in the previous year.

Respondents aged 19-34 were 3.5 times more likely to borrow money to pay for prescription drugs compared to those aged 45-54, while respondents without private drug insurance coverage were twice as likely to borrow money.

For the study, the researchers used data from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey conducted in 2016, which provided a sample size of 27,519 Canadians aged 12 and older. A limitation of the study was that researchers were unable to ask more specific questions about how patients borrowed money, be it from family and friends, a financial institution, payday loan, against a mortgage or on a credit card, or how much they borrowed.

Among respondents who reported borrowing money to pay for prescription drugs, 33 per cent reported borrowing to pay for prescriptions that cost them $200 or less, while 26 per cent reported borrowing for prescriptions that cost between $201 and $500.

Michael Law

“A key finding in our study was that borrowing occurred for all levels of out of pocket costs, and over 60 per cent of borrowing reported by the respondents in the study was for prescriptions that cost $500 or less,” said Kolhatkar.

Based on the findings, Michael Law, the study’s senior author who holds the Canada Research Chair in Access to Medicine, suggests that policy interventions be considered for patients who are struggling to pay for prescription drugs.

“Some provinces like Ontario and B.C. have implemented new public coverage programs to assist younger and lower-income Canadians who don’t have private drug insurance,” said Law. “Moving forward, we will need to investigate the impacts of these policies and continue to assess where people are falling through the cracks.”

The study—part of ongoing work by researchers at CHSPR looking at access to prescription drugs in Canada—was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.