Cancer patients are much more likely to go bankrupt than Americans who aren’t faced with a cancer diagnosis, a new study finds. Even the Americans who have access to health insurance aren’t necessarily safe from bankruptcy, since the high cost of treating cancer can still put an untenable strain their finances.
A team of researchers in Washington state collected data from nearly 400,000 adults, evenly split between those who had been treated for cancer and those who were cancer-free. After checking to see which of those adults had filed for bankruptcy between 1995 and 2009, the researchers found that cancer patients were 2.5 times as likely to go bankrupt in that period.
Although the study didn’t specifically look at insurance coverage, previous research has demonstrated that the Americans who cite major health issues as the reason they filed for bankruptcy are actually often insured. One 2006 study found that more than 60 percent of bankruptcies in the United States are due to high medical bills, and in those cases, three-quarters of those Americans had insurance when they got sick. NBC News interviewed one cancer patient who found herself in this situation, even though she was employed and insured when she first got her diagnosis:
That rings true for Janet Literski, 57, who had purchased health insurance as an independent contractor working in sales. When she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008 Literski discovered her insurance covered only part of her surgical costs and none of her diagnostic tests. Then there were co-payments and deductibles. By the time she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years later, she was about $150,000 in medical debt.
In 2011, no longer able to work, Literski and her disabled husband filed for bankruptcy. “It was a gut wrenching decision because you feel like a personal failure, and that makes me angry because I had tried to do everything right,” Literski says. “I had health insurance, I was working.”
Literski is now covered by Medicaid and receives disability payments and though she hasn’t been told she’s in remission, she says she is “healthy enough.”
[The study’s lead author, Dr. Scott Ramsey,] says cancer centers need to do a better job of assessing each patient’s financial status, offering credit counseling, and managing patient care.
Even bigger disparities emerged when the researchers broke down the cancer patients in their study by different demographics. The younger groups were up to 10 times more likely to go broke than the older patients, and non-white women were the most likely to run out of money.The cancer that is associated with the highest risk of bankruptcy is thyroid cancer — likely because that disease mostly affects younger women. On the other hand, older men with prostate cancer are the least likely to reach financial rock bottom.
Ramsey and his researchers first presented their research in 2011, and their final findings were published in the Health Affairs journal this week. The timing of the study’s release coincides with some recent pressure to help lower the cost of cancer drugs. Last month, a group of over 100 doctors criticized Big Pharma companies for making “life-saving” cancer drugs too expensive for Americans to afford. The doctors asserted that the “unsustainable drug prices” were “causing harm to patients,” and urged reforms in this area to ensure that cancer patients don’t have to go without the treatment they need.
Cancer patients have also been recently caught up in the budget battles resulting from sequestration. At the end of April, cancer clinics blasted Congress for taking legislative action to restore the sequester cuts that were causing airport delays rather than working to address the cuts that are undermining Americans’ chemotherapy treatment. As a result of the automatic budget cuts, some Americans are being forced to delay their chemotherapy, and some cancer clinics may even be forced to close their doors.