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Cancer patients can't afford treatment

7th June 2011

A growing number of cancer patients in the United States, even those who have medical insurance, are struggling to meet the cost of their care, research has shown.

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While advances have been made in fighting the deadly disease, the sheer cost of the new treatments still puts them way beyond the reach of many patients.

Studies show that more and more cancer patients in America are giving up their treatment plans because they simply cannot afford them.

Oncologist Lee Schwartzberg carried out a study which sought to examine what makes patients stop taking their medication.

He concluded that the cost of treating cancer, which is among the most expensive diseases to treat, was often not worth the pay-off for many people.

He said his patients had often been forced to decide whether such a huge financial cost was worth just a few potential extra months of life.

Schwartzberg, medical director of the West Clinic in Memphis, said he was very uncomfortable about having such conversations with his patients.

Other cost studies were presented alongside Schwartzberg's at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting.

US legislators are currently finding further ways to reduce further government spending on healthcare, to try to reduce the national debt.

However, paediatric oncologist Michael Link, said the federal government should prioritise healthcare nationwide.

Link said there were now some breakthrough therapies available for cancer, but that they were still out of reach for many patients.

Even those with insurance find that they have to make unaffordable "co-payments" for the most expensive, cutting-edge drugs.

After heart disease, cancer is the the second-most common cause of death in the US, and the ageing population is likely to make it more widespread still.

Americans spent more than US$124 billion in cancer care alone last year, with the biggest financial costs incurred by breast cancer patients.

New, targeted therapies that attack specific cancer cells and often have fewer side effects, are increasingly being adopted as frontline treatments in cancer, which will send costs rising still further.

The new drugs are often available as pills, which cost more and have higher co-payments for the insured. Previously, cancer drugs were given intravenously, which was a cheaper delivery method that attracted higher reimbursements from insurance companies.

The cost of cancer care could reach US$158 billion by 2020.

Schwartzberg's study of private insurance and Medicare clients showed that those who had higher co-payments to meet were more likely to quit treatment.

Treatments requiring co-payments of less than US$100 had a drop-out rate of just 6%, compared with a rate of 25% for those with co-payments of more than US$500.

Schwartzberg said the price of drugs should not be set "outrageously high".

Duke University internal medicine specialist Yousuf Zafar said he was surprised to find in a separate study how much even those with insurance struggled with their medical bills.

Patients with insurance paid out an average of US$712 a month on healthcare expenses, often forgoing food to meet their bills.

One in five insured Americans have problems paying their medical bills, according to the American Cancer Society.


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