The good news for cancer patients is that scientific advancements have made more and better treatments available than at any time in medical history. The bad news is that the climbing costs of these new treatments keep them out of reach of the patients who need them the most, especially the uninsured and the under-insured. Even patients with health insurance through their employers or labor unions may not have adequate coverage to pay all of the expenses involved in most cancer treatment programs.
Many major health insurance providers are lowering their payouts in order to improve their corporate bottom lines, and patients who must undergo expensive cancer treatments often are the first to feel the bite of the budget axe. Cancer drugs are, in many cases, experimental and have difficult manufacturing processes. These factors contribute to the high cost. Also, patients must often undergo several rounds of chemotherapy before their cancer improves.
Dr. Michael Link is a pediatric oncologist and president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASC). Dr. Link stated that he and his colleagues were “thrilled” with the new advances in cancer treatment presented at the group’s 2011 annual conference in Chicago However, he expressed his concerns about the cost issues that may prevent patients from gaining access to the drugs they need.
“The barriers for some patients to get (cancer drugs are) insurmountable. It is an indictment of how we take care of patients in the United States,” Dr. Link told reporters at the conference.
A recent study at Duke University analyzed how patients with health insurance faced the rising costs of cancer treatments. The study found that patients with health insurance and prescription coverage still paid an average of over $700 per month on out-of-pocket expenses such as medications, physician appointments and lost wages due to work absences.
“People (in the study) still couldn’t afford groceries and were spending life savings on cancer care,” said Dr. Yousuf Zafar, the study’s lead author. One patient reported that the co-payments on the chemotherapy for treat her late-stage breast cancer cost over $5,000 per month, along with diagnostic scans every two months that cost nearly $10,000 each.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that cancer treatment costs last year totaled over $124 billion. In the next ten years, the Institute estimates that the number could be over $160 billion. The advent of “targeted therapies” – treatments that attack specific types of cancer with fewer side effects – has brought hope to patients, but has also become one of the more costly treatment methods available.
Also, the development of more pill-based medications over intravenous chemotherapy treatments has added convenience to the cancer patient’s life, but at a high cost. Insurance companies often require higher co-payments for oral medication, which often leads to patients stretching their treatment routine or canceling it outright.
Dr. Lee Schwartzberg, the medical director at the West Clinic in Memphis, Tennessee, said that the prices of these vital drugs “can’t be set so outrageously high.”
“We have a problem with cancer care … All stake holders have to get together and compromise to translate this great science into great patient care without breaking the bank.”