Drugs are becoming a luxury product in the U.S. for a growing number of citizens. The Center for Studying Health System Change (CSHSC) found that the proportion of Americans under age 65 who are having problems paying for prescription drugs grew from 10.3% in 2003 to 13.9% in 2007. This is a 35% increase.

This finding comes from the Center’s tracking report, More Nonelderly Americans Face Problems Affording Prescription Drugs.

CSHSC dug into data from the Center’s 2007 Health Tracking Household Survey to come up with this finding. The survey data reveals that, in 2007, 36.1 million Americans did not get prescription drugs due to cost. That number was 24.4 million in 2003.

As the chart illustrates, changes in unmet Rx drug needs vary by type of health insurance coverage. Not surprisingly, access problems for the uninsured are the greatest and among employed people who receive health insurance from employers, the least. Uninsured people generally pay full retail prices for prescription drugs — when they decide to fill their prescriptions.

The Center points out that the growth of unmet need among people with private coverage (either through employers or non-group) is due to greater cost-sharing between tiers of prescription drugs. Between 2003 and 2007, the average tiered co-payments for Americans insured through work grew at least 20%.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: The chart shows that growth of unmet Rx need was slowest for Americans who receive health insurance through their employers. As the economy continues to decline, and prescription drug tiering gets more differentiated with greater spreads between tiers, a growing number of Americans will indeed view filling drugs in the third and fourth tiers (i.e., branded drugs not on formularies, and fourth-tier expensive specialty drugs) as a luxury good.

According to Express Scripts, “expensive biologics and other specialty drugs are becoming a larger share of drug spending,” the Center observes. These drugs are the stuff that save lives and improve quality of life for very sick people. It may come to pass that only those who have the money to pay for the luxury good that is specialty drugs can benefit from these life-saving products.