Researchers are calling for a re-think on Government prescription charges after being surprised by their own survey findings on how many chronically ill people struggle to pay.
For adults the prescription charge for each subsidised medication is $5, although high users can get a waiver for part of each year and subsidies are available for some.
One in five people who have multiple illnesses had trouble paying for all their health needs, including prescriptions, the researchers' new study found.
"This impact was greater for Māori and Pacific participants, with nearly half of Māori participants reporting that they find it hard to cover basic living costs in addition to their healthcare expenses," the researchers say in the latest New Zealand Medical Journal.
They also found that 70 per cent of participants who were working reported their health had affected their productivity.
Forty-one per cent of participants reported having only "fair" or "poor" general health, compared with 13.5 per cent of people in a survey of the general population reporting their health in those categories.
The new study involved a survey of 234 adults who have "multi-morbidity" - two or more long-term health conditions, including diabetes, obesity and angina.
The researchers said it was an unexpected finding that nearly 20 per cent of participants experienced financial difficulties taking care of their healthcare needs - including prescriptions in addition to basic living costs - given the small proportion, 12 per cent, who lived in the areas of highest deprivation.
The lead researcher, Jeannine Stairmand, of the University of Otago at Wellington, said the study reinforced earlier findings indicating there was a need to reconsider prescription costs to maintain the health of people with multiple long-term conditions.
"The financial impact of long-term conditions is important and under-researched," the researchers said in the journal.
"The relationship between financial hardship and higher levels of multi-morbidity is consistent both with the hypothesis that those with lower incomes are at higher risk of multimorbidity, and that multi-morbidity may result in loss of income.
"Another financial element is the likelihood that patients require multiple different prescriptions, although we do note that many participants accessed one of two Government subsidy schemes which should reduce the cost of multiple prescriptions.
"When patients cannot afford to collect some or all of their prescribed medications they may be forced to prioritise which medications are most essential, or ration the medication they can afford, resulting in unnecessary suffering, deterioration in health and increased costs to the patient and healthcare system."