Objective To compare the relative importance of medicine attributes and decision-making preferences of patients with higher or lower levels of insurance coverage in a publicly funded health care system. Design and setting Cross-sectional telephone survey of randomly selected regular medicine users aged ≥18 years in the Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia. Main variables studied Questions about 27 medicine attributes and active involvement in decisions to start a new medicine. Results After adjustment, there were few differences between the 408 concession card holders (high insurance) and 410 general beneficiaries (low insurance) in their assessment of the importance of medicine attributes. For both groups, the explanation of treatment options, establishing the need for the medicine, and medicine efficacy and safety were the most important considerations. Medicine costs, the treatment burden and medicine familiarity were less important; the views of family and friends ranked lowest. There was a statistically significantly greater influence of the regular doctor for the concession card holders than general beneficiaries (93.6 vs. 84%, adjusted OR 2.80, 95% CI 1.31, 5.99). Concession card holders were more likely to favour doctors having more say in the decision-making process (crude OR 1.69, 95% CI 1.28, 2.24), and more likely to report the most recent treatment decision being made by the doctor alone, compared with general beneficiaries (61.2 vs. 40.3%). Conclusion Medicine need, efficacy and safety are viewed as paramount for most patients, irrespective of insurance status. While patients report the importance of participation in treatment decisions, delegation of decision making to the doctor was common in practice.