Officials say they are "concerned" at new findings which show that more than one million Australians - 9.7% of the population - cannot afford to buy medicines which they have been prescribed.
Financial barriers also cause one million Australians to defer seeing a general practitioner (GP) and more than half a million not to consult a specialist, according to the latest annual National Healthcare Agreement Performance report issued by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council.
The percentages of people who are prevented from buying prescribed drugs because of cost issues are highest among those on the lowest incomes, at 12.8%, and particularly among women in this group, at 10.3% compared to 7.4% for men. For those without private health insurance the figure is 12.3%.
However, within the population overall, 12.6% of people aged 25-44 are also failing to buying prescribed medicines because of cost, compared with just 3.4% in the 65-74 age group and 2.6% of people aged 75 and over.
The percentages of people on low incomes who do not visit a GP (6.7%) or medical specialist (8.7%) for financial reasons are lower than those not buying their prescribed medicines for this reason (12.8%), the study finds. Overall, 1.1 million people (6.4% of the population) did not see a GP for this reason during the review period, the highest percentages being in the 25-34 age group (8.9%) and those aged 35-44 (8.3%). 7.1% of employed people deferred seeing a GP for financial reasons, compared to 8.4% of people without private health insurance and only 4.9% of the unemployed.
10.5% of the population (545,000 Australians) did not take up a GP referral to a specialist during the period for financial reasons, the report also shows. The highest percentages here were among women (11.5%) and people without private health insurance (12.2%).
While a number of factors are likely to be involved in these findings, the Council report notes the effects of the various benefits and concessions provided under Australia's Medicare and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) programmes. For example under Medicare, if a practitioner "bulk bills," it is possible for a patient to incur no cost for a visit to a GP or specialist.
Under the PBS however, while the Commonwealth Government subsidises the cost of medicines, patients also generally incur a cost, currently contributing a co-payment of up to A$34.20 for most PBS medicines and the government paying any cost above this. For people on low incomes who hold concession cards, the co-payment falls to A$5.60.
Therefore, while medicines can be heavily subsidised for concession-card holders, these patients will still incur some charge, although once they have paid A$336 in a co-payments in a single year, the PBS safety net usually provides that any further medications will incur no co-payment.
Commenting on the findings, COAG Reform Council chairman Paul McClintock said they show that improvements are needed in the affordability of health care. "We are concerned by the number of Australians who can't afford to visit a doctor or buy their prescription medicine when they need to," he said.