Personal Health Navigator

What to do when you can’t afford your medications

Woman purchasing medication
Written by Paul Taylor

QUESTION: I’m in my 50s and work two jobs to make ends meet. I also have some health problems and I’ve been prescribed several medications. But I sometimes find it hard to pay for my drugs. What am I supposed to do it when I can’t afford them?

ANSWER: You should start by having a discussion with your doctor.

“The truth is that we don’t always know the financial situation of our patients,” says Dr. Sharon Domb, division director of family practice at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

“We are usually aware of the ones who are living in poverty and the ones who have a lot of money. But the ones in the middle – who may be living month-to-month – we may know less about their circumstances.”

Although the provinces have a mix of programs that provide drug coverage to seniors and low-income individuals, many people in the working-age population fall through the cracks.

So, let it be known that you’re struggling to pay for medications. Your health-care provider may be able to suggest lower-cost options.

If you’re in a short-term financial pinch, the doctor may be able to tide you over with free samples, which are often distributed to physicians’ offices by pharmaceutical sales representatives, says Dr. Domb.

For your long-term medical needs, the doctor might carry out a review of your existing medications to determine what is absolutely necessary for your continued health.

It is fairly common for people to start taking a drug – such as a sleeping pill or heartburn medication – and the prescription is repeatedly renewed without considering whether it’s still needed. It may be determined that you no longer require certain drugs.

Dr. Domb says some medications should be cut back gradually. “By going off slowly, we can see if the symptoms resume.”

For some conditions, the doctor may be able to identify another class of drugs that can do the same job as your current medication, but at a lower price. The alternatives might include generics, which sell for a lot less than brand-name products.

“Older medicines are often as safe and effective as newer drugs, but they are just not promoted by the manufacturers because they make less money on them,” says Steve Morgan, a health policy professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health.

Patients can save some money by having their prescriptions renewed less frequently, says Prof. Morgan.

He explains that pharmacies usually charge a dispensing fee every time you buy a prescription medication. In some provinces, pharmacists are permitted to dispense a 90-day supply of a drug at one time. Your doctor could write a prescription for a full three-month supply, rather than a shorter period, for medications you take regularly. That would reduce dispensing fees.

If you shop around, you will also find that some pharmacies have lower fees than others. According to a 2016 survey by researchers at the University of Guelph, fees varied from $3.89 to $12.99 in the local area.

However, there can be disadvantages to these cost-cutting measures. You will have to pay for the drugs up front, and you may not have the spare cash.  What’s more, it may not be in your best interest to select a pharmacy simply because it has the lowest dispensing fee. After all, you may find a pharmacist who is extremely helpful and provides valuable advice – and yet he or she may not be at the cheapest drug store.

Dr. Domb says it’s certainly worthwhile to include a pharmacist in your discussions about affordability.  As a general rule, pharmacists have more in-depth knowledge of drug prices than physicians. They can be an indispensable resource.

Another thing you need to know is that some provinces have special programs to ease the burden on financially strapped patients. In Ontario, for instance, patients qualify for drug coverage once their medication expenditures exceed 4 percent of their household’s net annual income, explains Kim Truong, a pharmacist with Sunnybrook’s academic family health team.

You usually have to apply for these programs – they don’t happen automatically. Be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist if you might be eligible for such assistance.

Of course, a combination of cost-cutting measures and financial supports goes only so far.  A study co-authored by Prof. Morgan found that one in eight Canadians between the ages of 55 and 64 will occasionally skip prescription medications because of cost.  Foregoing certain drugs, even briefly, could put your health at risk.

What’s needed is a national pharmacare program, according to Prof. Morgan. “It’s the best way to make sure people get the medicines they need, regardless of their ability to pay.”

He acknowledges that many politicians are reluctant to support public funding of all prescription drugs.

But he thinks a politically viable plan could start with coverage of a limited number of essential medicines for common chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, arthritis and asthma. “Some of these medicine are going to keep people out of hospital and that’s going to save the health-care system money.”

In addition to telling your doctor that you can’t afford your drugs, Prof. Morgan says it would be a good idea to let your elected representatives know, too. “This is advocacy at the grassroots level, but I think it’s something Canadians need to do.”

About the author

Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor, Sunnybrook’s Patient Navigation Advisor, provides advice and answers questions from patients and their families, relying heavily on medical and health experts. Email your questions to AskPaul@sunnybrook.ca
and follow me on Twitter @epaultaylor