Survey Unveils Persistent Medical Debt Among Insured Cancer Patients in the U.S., Despite Coverage

May 15, 2024 9:16 am
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Nearly half of cancer patients in the United States are saddled with medical debt, and virtually all of them were insured at the time the debt was incurred, according to a recent survey by the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. Published earlier today, the survey reveals the grim financial landscape for those battling the disease, even amid seemingly comprehensive insurance coverage.

According to FOX San Antonio, the study examined responses from over 1,000 patients and survivors, finding that nearly 70% of them have shouldered debt for a year or more, and almost half face more than $5,000 in medical bills. The results, which highlight the exorbitant expenses linked with cancer treatment in the U.S., further showed that virtually all — 98% — had health insurance at the time the debt was incurred.

The financial impact of cancer care doesn’t just weigh on patients’ bank accounts; it also affects their health. Karen Knudsen, the CEO of the American Cancer Society, told NBC New York, “Patients are more likely to be behind on their recommended cancer screenings or skip or delay medication,” and they may also forego essentials such as food, clothing, and transportation. Worse, persons of color confront heightened challenges, with Black and Hispanic patients roughly twice as likely to be denied care due to their debt when compared to white respondents.

Dr. Fumiko Chino, a radiation oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, has experienced the burden of medical costs firsthand. After her husband succumbed to cancer in 2007, debt collectors pursued her for payments that insurance failed to cover. She emphasized to NBC New York the “affordability gap” facing patients, who are “facing excruciating decisions between their life, and their life savings.” Moreover, younger patients, particularly those in the age bracket of 35 to 44, disproportionately bear the burden of medical debt, with nearly three-quarters reporting outstanding bills due to cancer treatment.

Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, noted many with medical debt had high deductible health plans. While such plans attract individuals with lower monthly premiums, they also demand that patients pay substantial out-of-pocket costs before insurance kicks in, potentially contributing to the financial strain. Even those with more robust plans are not immune to the financial hardships wrought by long, expensive cancer treatments.

Hoping to mitigate these issues, Knudsen stressed the importance of early cancer detection, pointing out that “there is a significant reduction in cost” and clearly better outcomes when cancers are caught earlier. Nonetheless, the study lays bare the financial devastation that cancer treatment can wield, irrespective of insurance coverage, signaling a need for policy and healthcare industry reforms to address the realities cancer patients and their families face.

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