Health Insurance and Cancer: Your Mileage (and Coverage) May Vary

Financial toxicity is the phrase used to describe the impact of the cost of treatment on patients. The NIH describes financial toxicity as “problems a patient has related to the cost of treatment.” No matter what kind of health coverage plan you have, if you get a cancer diagnosis you’ll quickly discover all the things you’ll have to pay for, from co-pays on chemotherapy infusion drugs to the intricacies of “co-insurance,” where an insurer will pay a percentage, usually 70-80%, of the cost, with the patient responsible for the remaining percentage.

Financial toxicity isn’t limited to cancer – ask any person with diabetes who relies on insulin to stay alive about that – but the cost of cancer treatments is high, and rising higher. Cancer patients are put in the position of having to decide whether they’ll get the treatment their oncology team prescribes, or if they’ll put it off until they have the money for it. Patient assistance programs at pharmaceutical companies can offer some help, but there is no guarantee that a patient assistance program for a specific cancer drug will help everyone who can’t afford the drug.

An NPR piece covered this last year, framing the story around a man with advanced lung cancer whose oncologist prescribed a new drug, Alecensa, for his treatment. Alecensa’s annual list-price cost is $159,000, with Medicare patients like the man in the NPR piece paying $3,200 per calendar year. The patient in the story was prescribed the drug in late 2016, but decided to forego filling the prescription until January 2017, to avoid having to pay $6,400 within 60 days for the treatment.

This is part of a pattern of cost shifting across the health payment landscape. Premiums for private insurance rose 170% from 1999 to 2011, far higher than the average increase in wages in the same time frame. Prescription co-pays also rose dramatically with the introduction of tiered drug coverage plans that passed more cost to the patient. For example, from 2000 to 2012, the proportion of individuals with a drug plan that had three tiers increased from 27% to 63%.

Exacerbating the immediate financial anxiety of negotiating for a treatment that could mean the difference between life and death, there’s the impact of medical bills on a patient’s long-term financial health. A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report in 2014 revealed that almost 20% of credit reports had medical debt reported on them. In 2016, the Commonweath Fund noted that, “As of late 2016, 28 percent of U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 who were insured all year were underinsured — or an estimated 41 million people. […] Half (52%) of underinsured adults reported problems with medical bills or debt and more than two of five (45%) reported not getting needed care because of cost.”

I’ll put a face on this issue by introducing you to a friend of mine, Linnea Olson, who has been successfully beating Stage IV lung cancer for over a decade. Linnea has insurance coverage under COBRA, which is costly, but helps keep her alive by covering the costs of treatment that aren’t covered by the clinical trials she’s been part of over the years. She recently got a notice that her insurance had been terminated – the story on that is here, on her blog – which put her in the “high anxiety” zone, to say the least. That post is a very clear example of how financial toxicity impacts someone with cancer. Her situation lit fires across the cancer patient activist community, launching a campaign to get her coverage back. Four days later, she received word that her coverage had been reinstated. She shared that news publicly on her blog, too.

My point here is that this should not be way Americans are expected to deal with a cancer diagnosis – by facing the fight of their life while their financial lives are laid waste. The costs of treatment shouldn’t be the first thing someone has to think of when facing a life-threatening illness. The patient community is in sync on that. The oncology clinical community agrees that treatment costs, and financial toxicity, are in need of clearer discussion. The American Society of Clinical Oncology published a report in 2017 that included a recommendation that discussion of treatment cost and coverage “would […] facilitate rational discussions of efforts to use more cost-efficient regimens, use less expensive alternatives, or perhaps forego extremely expensive and toxic options that have little chance to provide meaningful benefit.”

I recommend that we keep advocating for more transparency in insurance coverage, and in the in-clinic discussion of the costs and benefits of cancer treatments. It also couldn’t hurt to advocate that our elected representatives craft legislation that makes that transparency a requirement, not an option.

Casey Quinlan covered her share of medical stories as a TV news field producer, and used healthcare as part of her observational comedy set as a standup comic. So when she got a breast cancer diagnosis five days before Christmas in 2007, she used her research, communication, and comedy skills to navigate treatment, and wrote “Cancer for Christmas: Making the Most of a Daunting Gift” about managing medical care, and the importance of health literate self-advocacy. In addition to her ongoing work as a journalist, she’s a popular speaker and thought leader on healthcare system transformation from the ground up.