29 Sep 2016
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Part of a series of posts about common chronic illnesses and what happens when people cannot afford prescription medications to treat them.

Americans are dying from cancer because they either can’t afford the medications to treat it, or they have the money but refuse to bankrupt their families. Cancer is the second leading cause of death after heart disease in the U.S., claiming more than half a million lives each year. In 2016, it is estimated that 1,685,210 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S., amounting to one new diagnosis every 30 seconds.

The cost for cancer drugs, like many prescriptions, has become so exorbitant that a growing number of cancer patients simply can’t afford their medication. The mounting out-of-pocket expenses borne by cancer patients have forced many to make healthcare decisions based on their finances and not what is best for their health. Some patients are even forced to scale back on food and other necessities.  While others stretch out their supply of pills by taking half-doses, which is dangerous because they are not taking the amounts prescribed. Still others even delay getting prescriptions refilled altogether – putting their life or their loved one’s life in jeopardy.

Cancer is diagnosed in persons of all ages, but the risk of developing cancer substantially increases with age. About three out of four new cancers are diagnosed in people aged 55 or older. Men have a higher risk than women of developing cancer. One in two men will be diagnosed with cancer as opposed to one in three women

Nearly 40 percent of the population will experience a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lifetime. A cancer diagnosis alone can be a terrifying and stressful experience. Imagine how much worse the diagnosis when forced to pay high costs for cancer medication to stay alive, and knowing it will lead to financial ruin.

The average cost of cancer medications is about $100,000 per treatment, with increasingly more insured Americans having co-insurance of 30% of cost, about $30,000.  An estimated 10-20% of cancer patients end up discontinuing or compromising their treatments due to cost. A 2012 study, published in The Oncologist, found that of the 252 study participants, 46 percent reported that they had used their life savings to pay out-of-pocket expenses.  Additionally, 20 percent took less medication than was prescribed, 19 percent partially filled prescriptions, and 24 percent did not fill a prescription because of the costs.   

The serious financial distress brought on by a cancer diagnosis cannot be overstated. A 2013 study performed by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that cancer patients were 2.5 times more likely to be driven into bankruptcy by their illness and the associated costs for treatment. A recent study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found an even more dire outcome for cancer patients who have had to file bankruptcy: cancer patients who file for bankruptcy are nearly 80 percent more likely to die than patients who don’t. With some cancers, such as prostate or colorectal cancer having a significantly higher mortality rate compared to other cancers.

While the focus in this article is the toll on the American consumer, it’s important to bring up the taxpayer burden. The U.S. spends more on cancer medications than any other country in the world.  According to a report by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, global costs for cancer medication soared to $100 billion in 2014, a 10.3 percent increase from the year before, and the U.S. shouldered 42.2 percent of those costs.  The report projects that the amount of money spent on cancer drugs will continue to grow at a rate of 6 to 8 percent a year.  This presents the prospect of an increasing financial burden for American taxpayers who pay a good part of the bill for medications covered by Medicare, Medicaid and other public insurance programs – but particularly Medicare, which is still banned from negotiating drug prices.

The insurmountable costs for cancer medications is a moral travesty that ought to shock our national conscience. Solutions to what is clearly the central healthcare concern of Americans – high drug prices – are not hard to find. Many of the solutions, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and expanding access to lower cost, imported medication, have wide bi-partisan support among voters. Legislative action and political courage among our elected leaders is now needed to bring these solutions to life.

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