Cancer exacts a significant financial burden for many survivors. They may leave treatment in heavy debt, be forced into early retirement, or lose their jobs during the demanding treatment cycle. If they eventually change employers, they may be unable to qualify for health insurance or an affordable life insurance policy. Childhood cancer survivors may never qualify for health insurance as adults.
Not only is cancer treatment and aftercare challenging the financial life of cancer survivors, but survivors also may be facing lifetime caps on insurance coverage, extra costs to extend a previous employer’s coverage under the federal COBRA law, problems qualifying for disability benefits, high-cost drugs and testing that can continue for years after diagnosis … and often large drops in income. Among families filing for bankruptcy in the United States, cancer was found to be the most costly reported illness, with annual out-of-pocket medical expenses averaging $35,000, according to figures from The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
If your treatment causes unmanageable medical debt, there are a number of strategies you can investigate:
- Be sure hospital charges are accurate. Billing departments do make errors. Check that your insurance is covering everything it is supposed to cover and appeal if necessary. Request one case manager at your insurance company to handle your needs.
- Access public and private programs. You may qualify for government programs such as Medicaid or Social Security Disability or your state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program. In some cases, coverage can be retroactive. Grants of private assistance to cover medical costs may be available through your hospital or national organizations.
- Talk to your providers and ask directly for discounts and extended payment plans. They often do not offer unless you ask. Ask your doctor to write prescriptions for extended periods to cut down co-payments.
- Avoid medical credit cards. Oftentimes, the alluring start-up fees and zero interest rates go to much higher amounts after the grace period. Putting your expenses on a credit card eliminates your ability to negotiate with your provider for discounts or extended payment plans.
- If you own your home, contact your mortgage lender to work out new payment arrangements. Some possibilities may include taking a second mortgage, a reverse mortgage, or a home equity loan to cover your medical expenses.
- Deduct medical expenses from your taxes.
It is critically important that we develop effective cost models that could lead to new and better ways for survivors and the health care system to financially cope with cancer. I hope that the variety of resources listed below help you navigate the complex payment and third-party reimbursement system during your cancer journey. The patient advocacy programs can work with you to ensure that you receive the treatments recommended by your physicians and help identify additional resources to cover payment.