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Study: Cancer Patients’ Out-of-Pocket Costs Climb Toward Crisis

Cancer patients with private insurance are seeing the out-of-pocket costs of their treatments rise to unaffordable levels. That’s the conclusion of an alarming new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Researchers at the American Cancer Society and the University of Texas tracked the insurance claims of almost 200,000 patients diagnosed with the four most common cancers between 2009 and 2016. They found that out-of-pocket costs in the first year of treatment jumped 15% to an average of $6,000 during that time span. Breast cancer patients saw the sharpest increase of all: 29%.

A Growing Body of Evidence

This is the latest contribution to a growing body of evidence about the risks of high deductible health plans, particularly for cancer patients. Previous studies of oncology patients have linked high deductible health plans with financial hardship, reduced access to imaging tests, forgone care, even delayed detection of metastatic cancer.

High deductible health plans are popular, in part, because of the affordability of their low monthly premium. But patients may face higher costs in the long run, especially if they have to pay thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for cutting-edge diagnostics or treatments.

The combination of a cancer diagnosis and cancer-related financial toxicity can be particularly hard on patients. And the trend of rising out-of-pocket costs among patients with primary insurance is concerning, according to study author Ya Chen Tina Shih, Ph.D., because high-deductible plans are becoming more common in the private insurance market.

Troubling Trend Lines

Indeed, almost 60% of all working-age Americans with private health insurance now have high deductible health plans, up from just 11% in 2006. Patients and providers both have reason to wonder if the growth of out-of-pocket costs between 2009-2016 has only continued, or even accelerated, in the years since.

Further research is needed to quantify the full impact of high deductible health plans on patient care and quality of life. But current evidence strongly suggests the need for greater attention – and federal action – to protect cancer patients from unsustainable cost sharing before this problem becomes a crisis. No patient, least of all those facing life-threatening conditions, should be forced to choose between physical and financial well-being.

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