Context: Rising costs of medications and inequities in access have sparked calls for drug policy reform in the United States and Canada. Control of drug expenditures by prescription cost-sharing for elderly persons and poor persons is a contentious issue because little is known about the health impact in these subgroups.
Objectives: To determine (1) the impact of introducing prescription drug cost-sharing on use of essential and less essential drugs among elderly persons and welfare recipients and (2) rates of emergency department (ED) visits and serious adverse events associated with reductions in drug use before and after policy implementation.
Design and setting: Interrupted time-series analysis of data from 32 months before and 17 months after introduction of a prescription coinsurance and deductible cost-sharing policy in Quebec in 1996. Separate 10-month prepolicy control and postpolicy cohort studies were conducted to estimate the impact of the drug reform on adverse events.
Participants: A random sample of 93 950 elderly persons and 55 333 adult welfare medication recipients.
Main outcome measures: Mean daily number of essential and less essential drugs used per month, ED visits, and serious adverse events (hospitalization, nursing home admission, and mortality) before and after policy introduction.
Results: After cost-sharing was introduced, use of essential drugs decreased by 9.12% (95% confidence interval [CI], 8.7%-9.6%) in elderly persons and by 14.42% (95% CI, 13.3%-15.6%) in welfare recipients; use of less essential drugs decreased by 15.14% (95% CI, 14.4%-15.9%) and 22.39% (95% CI, 20.9%-23.9%), respectively. The rate (per 10 000 person-months) of serious adverse events associated with reductions in use of essential drugs increased from 5.8 in the prepolicy control cohort to 12.6 in the postpolicy cohort in elderly persons (a net increase of 6.8 [95% CI, 5.6-8.0]) and from 14.7 to 27.6 in welfare recipients (a net increase of 12.9 [95% CI, 10.2-15.5]). Emergency department visit rates related to reductions in the use of essential drugs also increased by 14.2 (95% CI, 8.5-19.9) per 10 000 person-months in elderly persons (prepolicy control cohort, 32.9; postpolicy cohort, 47.1) and by 54.2 (95% CI, 33.5-74.8) among welfare recipients (prepolicy control cohort, 69.6; postpolicy cohort, 123.8). These increases were primarily due to an increase in the proportion of recipients who reduced their use of essential drugs. Reductions in the use of less essential drugs were not associated with an increase in risk of adverse events or ED visits.
Conclusions: In our study, increased cost-sharing for prescription drugs in elderly persons and welfare recipients was followed by reductions in use of essential drugs and a higher rate of serious adverse events and ED visits associated with these reductions.