|New Kaiser Family Foundation Report Highlights Financial Squeeze On Cancer Patients
Cancer patients can face severe challenges in paying for
life-saving care – running up large debts, filing for personal
bankruptcy and even delaying or forgoing potentially life-saving
treatment – even when they have private health insurance,
according to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the
American Cancer Society.
The report profiles 20 patients and illustrates the
potential difficulties people diagnosed with cancer or other serious
illnesses have in maintaining affordable health insurance and paying
for their healthcare. The patients in the report and accompanying video
were selected to illustrate typical cases from the many people who call
the American Cancer Society’s Health Insurance Assistance
For these patients, having private health insurance at
the time of their cancer diagnosis did not protect them from high
out-of-pocket costs – leaving them with large debts to cover
their treatment costs and forcing some to skip or delay necessary
"The stories of people with cancer in this study and
video documentary show what our earlier survey work found: that the
insurance system often fails people when they need it most, when they
get really sick," said Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew
"Cancer patients too often find out that their insurance
doesn’t protect them when they need care the most," said John R.
Seffrin, national chief executive officer of the American Cancer
Society. "High out-of-pocket costs coupled with the high cost of
insurance premiums can force cancer patients to incur huge debt, and to
delay or forgo life-saving treatments."
The report highlights five key gaps in the healthcare
system that can leave people with cancer and other life-threatening
diseases in financial jeopardy as a result of their diagnosis:
High cost-sharing, caps on benefits leave cancer patients vulnerable.
The various types of cost-sharing and limits on benefits found in some
insurance plans may quickly lead to high out-of-pocket costs once
cancer treatment begins. For instance, Jamie Drzweicki of Miami ran up
more than $75,000 in debts after her breast-cancer treatment costs
exceeded her policy’s annual limit.
Cancer patients and survivors are often unable to find adequate and affordable coverage in the individual market.
Those with employer-sponsored coverage may not be
protected from catastrophically high healthcare costs if they become
too sick to work. Most people get their health coverage through their
employers, which often pay most of the premiums. Under existing law,
people who lose their jobs because they are unable to work generally
must decide within 60 days whether to temporarily retain their
employer-sponsored coverage through COBRA by paying the full premium
Phyllis Miller of Johnstown, Pa., who has been
unable to work since having emergency surgery for late-stage colon
cancer, missed the 60-day deadline and has struggled since then to
afford the premiums and cost-sharing of her less comprehensive
Cancer survivors who have been in remission for years and have a good
long-term prognosis may still have trouble finding coverage or pay
higher premiums in the individual market. For instance, 10 years after
Thomas Olszewski of Graham, Texas was treated for early prostate
cancer, he still is unable to find affordable health coverage and pays
one-fourth of his family’s income in premiums for a
High-risk insurance pools are not available to all cancer patients, and some find the premiums difficult to afford.
High-risk pools, which are designed to help cancer patients and others
who are uninsurable, are not available in all states, and when they are
available, they are often much more expensive than most other plans in
the individual market. For example, high costs have prevented breast
cancer survivor Mardel Budreau of West Lafayette, Ind. from enrolling
in a high-risk pool after learning her individual insurance policy only
paid $250 toward her radiation treatment.
Waiting periods, strict restrictions on eligibility, or delayed application for public programs can leave people who are too ill to work without an affordable insurance option.
Cancer patients too sick to work may qualify for Social Security
Disability Insurance income and, after two years of receiving this
income, may qualify for Medicare coverage. During the waiting period,
patients typically have reduced incomes and may not be able to afford
private insurance coverage. This happened to David Young, a truck
driver from Godwin, N.C., who has not worked since being diagnosed with
late-stage kidney cancer. Young became eligible for Social Security
disability benefits in October 2007 but does not yet qualify for
Addresses: American Cancer Society, 1599 Clifton Downs Dr. SE, Atlanta, GA 30316; (404) 327-5712, www.cancer.org. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2400 Sand Hill Rd., Menlo Park, CA 84025; (652) 854-9400, www.kff.org.