Half of America’s cancer patients burn through their entire life’s savings in less than two years, a new study reveals.
The paper, titled ‘Debt or Death?’, reveals patients spend an average of $92,098 a year trying to stay alive – higher than other papers had previously quoted.
Costs were highest for the most vulnerable: the elderly, the sicker, and the uninsured, according to the study based on 9.5 million patients between 1998 and 2014.
Experts warn this trend is set to worsen as more Americans turn to short term healthcare plans that don’t cover cancer care, nor general care for survivors after remission.
The paper, titled ‘Debt or Death?’, used data on 9.5 million nationally-representative patients between 1998 and 2014, who spend an average of $92,098 a year trying to stay alive
Cancer is the biggest killer in America after heart disease.
More than 1.6 million Americans a year are diagnosed with cancer – 87 percent of whom are over 50 – and more than 600,000 die.
And the costs are eye-watering.
Treating patients costs the US healthcare system $87.8 billion a year, and early deaths cost $130 billion a year.
A hefty amount of that is shouldered by patients: in 2014, the latest figures available, patients paid $4 billion out-of-pocket for their care, according to a report by the American Cancer Society and Cancer Action Network.
The new study by researchers at the Universities of Oklahoma and Arizona, as well as Vector Oncology in Tennessee, was one of the first to look at how that works on an individual basis.
It was also one of the first to assess financial toxicity across all cancers, whereas most others a specific to the type of cancer.
Even after controlling for economic factors, like the economic crash in 2008, the financial burden remained the same.
Lead author Grant Skrepnek, associate professor of pharmacology, at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, told DailyMail.com that he was stunned by the numbers, even after 20 years in cancer research.
‘It’s shocking,’ Skrepnek said.
‘[The figures] were higher than we expected, and higher than previous work had alluded to as well.
‘The bottom line is, our goal should be to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible for people in the most uncertain period of time in their lives.’
‘Clearly,’ he adds, ‘we’re not doing a very good job.’
The paper, published in the American Journal of Medicine, is the follow-up from a study Skrepnek and colleagues published five years ago, showing cancer is cited for 33 million sick days a year in the US, particularly for breast cancer.
That is a significant blow to the nation’s productivity as a whole.
Crucially, it pointed to the cruel reality that cancer patients struggle to keep up with the demands of the US economy, weakened physically, emotionally and financially by the very thing that is meant to be a lifeline.
The team decided to look at it from a personal angle – something, Skrepnek says, is not common for an economic paper (‘we don’t do a very good job as researchers at looking at the broader picture’).
They found half the patients in the nationally-representative study were driven into bankruptcy within a couple of years.
It’s a story that’s been told before, but something that appears to be either worsening or, at best, holding steady.
‘Every clinician is as concerned as I am; incredibly concerned for the immediate time being,’ Skrepnek said. ‘We can and we should be doing better.’
There are no figures on cancer costs past 2014, so the future is murky.
Skrepnek warned that one thing hampering our predictions is the advent of immunotherapy, the wonder drug that turns patients’ own cells into killers that hunt and kill cancer cells. It is tipped to save thousands if not millions of people who previously had no options. But it costs a cool $475,000 per case.
We still haven’t seen the large-scale impact of immunotherapy on patients’ survival rates and pockets, which injects yet more uncertainty into a historically complicated field.
But Jennifer Singleterry, senior policy analyst at the American Cancer Society/Cancer Action Network who authored last year’s report on cancer costs, warned that something else demands more attention: short term healthcare plans.
The current administration has promoted short term healthcare plans as a cheaper, more accessible way to get coverage for day-to-day ailments.
However, these plans rarely cater to cancer patients, kicking patients off the plan after a diagnosis or refusing to accept people in remission because their previous battle with cancer is classified as an ‘underlying condition’.
‘We are very concerned,’ Singleterry told DailyMail.com.
‘Patients who buy these plans [often] don’t realize that they don’t cover a lot of things, or have caps. If someone gets cancer while enrolled in these plans, they could get kicked off. That’s when you’re going to see asset depletion because your insurance doesn’t cover your cancer care.’
What’s more, she warned, if more healthy people turn to short term plans, the minority of chronically ill people will be left with much higher insurance premiums than usual on the standard plans.
‘If these plans continue to proliferate, we might see this [trend] continue.’
It is difficult to overstate ‘how hard it can be for a cancer patient to be hit with a bunch of bills in some two or three months,’ Singleterry said.
‘Often it’s before they have been diagnosed, because it’s all the diagnostic tests. It comes hard and fast at a time that is really difficult.
‘It’s scary to be diagnosed with cancer, [and often] it’s even more scary to be thinking about the financial implications.’