Ability to pay and the decision to medicate

Med Care. 1998 Feb;36(2):202-11. doi: 10.1097/00005650-199802000-00009.


Objectives: It is widely recognized that ability to pay affects access to hospital and physician services. Much less is known about the economic determinants of prescription drug use, particularly among the elderly. The authors hypothesize that persons with higher incomes and better health insurance coverage are more likely to medicate common health problems than those with lower incomes and less comprehensive coverage.

Methods: A random sample of 4,066 elderly Pennsylvania Medicare beneficiaries were asked to complete a mail survey on health insurance, income, and medicine use for 23 common health problems. The relationship between ability to pay and medication decisions was analyzed using logistic and Poisson regression models with covariates for sociodemographic characteristics and health status.

Results: A strong and consistent relationship was found in the hypothesized direction. Other things being equal, elderly persons with Medicare supplementation were between 6% and 17% more likely to use prescription medicine to treat their health problems than are persons with Medicare coverage alone. The presence of prescription drug coverage significantly increased the odds of prescription treatment for 10 of the 22 conditions examined. The insurance effects were generally--but not exclusively--more pronounced for less serious compared with serious health problems. Income also was shown to have a strong independent effect on medication decisions. Elderly with annual incomes greater than $18,000 were 18% more likely to treat problems with prescription drugs than were persons with annual incomes less than $6,000.

Conclusions: In sum, economic factors appeared to play an important role in medication decisions by the elderly. The magnitude of the impact was sufficiently high that it could have major negative consequences on the health of elderly persons who are poor and lack drug coverage.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cost Sharing / economics
  • Drug Prescriptions / economics
  • Drug Therapy / economics*
  • Drug Therapy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Services Research
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Income
  • Insurance Coverage / statistics & numerical data*
  • Insurance, Medigap / statistics & numerical data
  • Insurance, Pharmaceutical Services
  • Male
  • Medicaid / statistics & numerical data
  • Medicare Part B / statistics & numerical data
  • Nonprescription Drugs / economics
  • Pennsylvania / epidemiology
  • United States


  • Nonprescription Drugs