In 2007, 36.1 million American children and people of working age went without prescription drugs because of cost issues - 11.7 million more than in 2003, according to new research.

17.8% of working-age (19-64) Americans failed to fill prescriptions because of affordability issues in 2007 compared to 13.8% in 2003, a rise of 29%, says the study, which was conducted by the Center for Studying Health System Change. Moreover, for children the problem grew even faster, with 3.9 million affected in 2007, or 5% of all US children compared to 3.1% in 2003.

The percentage of uninsured people of working age with unmet prescription needs rose from 26% to almost 35% over the period. For people in this group suffering from one or more chronic conditions the level reaches almost two-thirds and for those covered by Medicaid and other state insurance programmes it is nearly 25%.

Moreover, for people with employer-provided insurance, the proportion has gone up to 10.7% from 8.7%, says the study, whose authors add that these percentages could be even higher because of the economic downturn.

Health insurance fears for newly unemployed

Meatime, as US unemployment rates reach the highest levels in 16 years, other new research from the Commonwealth Fund says that 66% of all current workers would, if laid off, be eligible to extend their health insurance under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA). This law was passed in 1985 to enable workers and their families who lose their employers’ health insurance to keep it, under certain conditions, for a given period of time.

However, the Fund adds that, for most people, COBRA payments are about four to six times higher than the amount of money they contributed to their health insurance when they were employed, and are therefore unaffordable. Yet millions of those eligible could keep their coverage if they could get assistance with their premiums, which average $4,704 per year for an individual and $12,680 a year for a family, it says.

The Fund also reports that only 38% of low-wage workers are eligible to receive COBRA benefits, either because they do not receive health insurance through their jobs, they work for small firms that are not required to offer COBRA or they are uninsured to begin with.

“Americans are losing their jobs at an alarming pace and this report clearly shows that many people cannot afford to take on the expense of COBRA just as they lose their income,” said the Commonwealth Fund’s president, Karen Davis. “The number of uninsured Americans could grow markedly during this recession unless we take action to help unemployed Americans keep their health care coverage,” she warned.

- As one of the first legislative acts of the new Congress, the US House of Representatives this month reauthorised the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and extended it to 4.1 million more children, to provide health insurance for over 11 million nationwide. The programme was created in 1997 to provide health cover for children in working families with incomes that are too high to qualify for for the federal Medicaid pogramme but too low to make private insurance affordable. Legislation to reauthorise and extend the bill was approved by Congress twice in 2007, but each time it was vetoed by President George W Bush. The programme has since then been continuing under a temporary extension, which expires on March 31.