Researchers call for axing of script fee

University of Otago’s Va’a o Tautai Centre for Pacific Health researcher Prof Pauline Norris....
University of Otago’s Va’a o Tautai Centre for Pacific Health researcher Prof Pauline Norris. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Prescription charges on essential medications are proving to be financially crippling for many New Zealanders with high health needs and low incomes.

So University of Otago health researchers have called for $5 prescription charges to be scrapped for people in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation, and believe it could reduce the number of people being admitted to hospital around the country.

A study, led by Otago’s Va’a o Tautai Centre for Pacific Health researcher Prof Pauline Norris, found prescription charges prevented some people from getting their medication.

"Some people have such low incomes and high health costs, that the $5 charge per medicine is an insurmountable barrier.

"They go without their medicines and as a result, their health problems get worse, so they need hospital care.

"This is bad for them, their whānau and the health system," she said.

More than 1000 people with physical and mental health problems which require medication, took part in the year-long study.

They were randomly assigned to one of two groups — control or intervention.

People in the control group were required to pay the $5 fee as normal, while those in the intervention group did not.

Instead, pharmacies billed the study authors.

The results showed for every 100 people who received free prescriptions, 33 were admitted to hospital and stayed for 208 days.

For every 100 people who still had to pay the $5 charge, 41 were admitted to hospital and stayed 326 days.

She said removing the charge had a substantial effect on the odds of being admitted to hospital during the study year, reduced the number of admissions for mental health problems, the number of admissions for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and the length of stay for COPD admissions.

"We knew from previous studies that people go without their medicines because of cost, and many people had told us about their health suffering and sometimes ending up in hospital because of this.

"However, I am surprised at how much difference the free medicines made; it was really dramatic."

A recent New Zealand health survey revealed 3.3% of adults reported going without medicine because of costs.

This was more common for Māori and Pacific peoples, and those living in areas of high deprivation.

Prescription charges forced people to choose between getting their medicines, feeding their whānau, paying the power bill or buying petrol to get to work.

Prof Norris hoped policy makers would consider eliminating the charges for people who were unable to afford them.

"This would be a simple way to reduce health inequities."