Cancer is one of the most common diseases, and one of the most costly to treat. If you get it—and 1 in 3 women and half of all men will—you'd like to feel confident that having health insurance will ensure that you get the care you need without too much financial pain. But as a new report documents, our private health insurance system is riddled with holes that force many patients either to forgo or delay care or to rack up huge bills that put them and their families in financial jeopardy. I went looking for ways to mitigate the problems, and found precious few. This is no surprise; if there were easy, affordable solutions, there would be no need for this report.
"Spending to Survive: Cancer Patients Confront Holes in the Health Insurance System" is a report produced jointly by the American Cancer Society and the Kaiser Family Foundation. It describes the difficulties encountered by 20 cancer patients who had private health insurance and who should, by all rights, have been able to count on their health plans to cover most, if not all, of their care. It didn't work out that way. They ran into caps on coverage and bumped up against lifetime benefit limits. Their cancer forced them to quit working, but they couldn't afford to continue their former employers' coverage under COBRA. And so on. The specifics varied, but the outcome was often the same: treatment glitches and a mountain of debt to join the weight of worry they already faced over their health.
So, I asked experts what patients could do to avoid these pitfalls. Their response: Not much. Unfortunately, health insurance often doesn't work very well when people are sick and need it most. "There are things you can try, but brace yourself, because they may very well not work," says Karen Pollitz, a research professor at Georgetown University's Health Policy Institute. With those caveats in mind, here are ideas and resources for cancer patients that may reduce some of the bumps in the road to their hoped-for recovery:
Here are other suggestions for keeping a lid on medical bills.