Australian Economy

Medicine affordability hardships bite for Australians as cost of living pressures build

Izzy Sheppard feels like they are constantly treading water to stay on top of medical expenses. 

“I’m like three unexpected medical appointments away from losing a lot of my savings,” they said. 

“What really gets me is I’ll go, ‘I need to go to the shop and spend $50 on groceries and go to the chemist and pick up my script’ and then be like, ‘oh, I’m not spending $50, I’m spending $100’.

“‘I really shouldn’t get these things at the shops so that I can afford my monthly medication’.”

“I have to save up to go to the doctors to get my repeat, which is $60 plus another $40 for my medication.”

Fortnightly psychologist appointments, as well as other medical appointments and prescription medications, are competing with rising costs of living such as food, fuel and electricity. 

At times, the Canberra-based arts worker has had to delay medical appointments.

“I try really hard not to but I’ve moved doctor’s appointments to the next pay fortnight so I could afford to go,” they said. 

“I’ve stopped going to the physio, I haven’t been to the dentist in two years.” 

Multiple packets of colourful pharmaceutical medicines.
The national president of the Australian Pharmaceutical Society says pharmacists are seeing people choosing between “putting food on the table versus using the money to get their medicines”.(Pixabay)

Choosing between food and medicine

Affordability of healthcare was found to be the top issue of financial concern among Australian voters, in a survey of 15 key seats commissioned as part of the Australian Patients Association and the Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s Affordable Medicines Now campaign. 

The level of voter concern increased by 5 per cent from 78 per cent of voters in January to 83 per cent in April.

The number of voters finding medications difficult to afford also jumped up by 5 per cent, to nearly a third of respondents, while the number of people who were unable to buy prescription medication because they could not afford it increased by 3 per cent, to 17 per cent of voters. 

Fei Sim, the national president of the Australian Pharmaceutical Society, said it was an increasing problem. 

“It is essential that every Australian continues to have access to affordable medicines.”

Dr Fei Sim smiles at the camera.
Dr Fei Sim says everyone should have access to affordable medicines.(ABC News: Pedro Ribeiro)

The federal government lowered the PBS Safety Net threshold at the start of July. 

For concessional patients, the changes meant they reached the threshold after paying for 36 full-priced concessional scripts (instead of 48) and would receive PBS medicines at no charge for the rest of the year.

General patients have to pay only the concessional co-payment of $6.80 after 34 full-priced scripts, down from 36.

From January 2023, the co-payment for PBS medication will drop from a maximum of $42.50 to $30. 

Dr Sim said while those measures would help affordability, it was still not enough. 

‘No more fat to cut’

Sally Parkes looks at the camera.
Sally Parkes, who has chronic migraines and arthritis, worries about unexpected medical costs.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

Melbourne woman Sally Parkes lives with chronic migraines and arthritis.

“Last month I had to see a specialist last minute, see a physio, see a GP and change my prescription medication all in the space of a month,” she said. 

“And that’s all very expensive to do in a short period of time.”

Ms Parkes has found that after taking on a mortgage in December, she no longer has the savings buffer to cover unexpected medical expenses. 

“When an unexpected cost has come along, I’ve had to reshuffle something, I’ve had to say no to doing something like going out,” she said. 

Sally Parkes with a dog.
Sally Parkes says there was a period when she was “having to fork out another $100 here and there” to try different medicines.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

Ms Parkes said she was feeling the pinch of other living costs rising and she had no more fat to cut from her budget. 

“I’m lucky enough that I have family that I can fall back on, so there’s been once or twice where I’ve had to ask for a bit of financial help to cover the costs,” she said. 

“There was a period when I was changing medications a lot and it would just be every fortnight I was having to fork out another $100 here and there just to try different ones that would work and it became quite expensive.”

Affordability problems more widespread

Both pharmacists and GPs are urging people to talk to them early if they are having problems affording medication or appointments. 

Chris Moy, the vice-president of the Australia Medical Association, said the issue of health care affordability was becoming more widespread. 

“The problems with people affording their medication and therefore either not taking it or economising by skipping doses has always been a problem,” he said. 

“I’m certainly hearing it more now because of concerns about the ability to afford other things, being able to get food for example, making sure that people can afford food and other things like energy, electricity.”

Dr Chris Moy smiles at the camera.
Dr Chris Moy says doctors are able to help make medication more affordable in many circumstances.(Supplied: AMA)

Dr Moy said doctors were able to help people in many circumstances. 

“For example, we can look at their whole medication list and start to prioritise what’s really important and what’s less important, we can also give people cheaper options, switch to a cheaper brand or a completely different medication which may have a very similar effect but be much cheaper,” he said. 

“It may first up damage your health, not just in the short term but the long term, impact your ability to earn income as well, which will mean you’ll go from the frying pan into the fire in terms of your lifestyle.” 

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