Americans with Cancer are Twice as Likely to go Bankrupt, Even If They Have Health Insurance

Written by Tara Culp-Ressler

Cancer patients are much more likely to go bankrupt than Americans who aren’t faced with a cancer diagnosis, a new study finds. Even the Americans who have access to health insurance aren’t necessarily safe from bankruptcy, since the high cost of treating cancer can still put an untenable strain their finances.

A team of researchers in Washington state collected data from nearly 400,000 adults, evenly split between those who had been treated for cancer and those who were cancer-free. After checking to see which of those adults had filed for bankruptcy between 1995 and 2009, the researchers found that cancer patients were 2.5 times as likely to go bankrupt in that period.

Although the study didn’t specifically look at insurance coverage, previous research has demonstrated that the Americans who cite major health issues as the reason they filed for bankruptcy are actually often insured. One 2006 study found that more than 60 percent of bankruptcies in the United States are due to high medical bills, and in those cases, three-quarters of those Americans had insurance when they got sick. NBC News interviewed one cancer patient who found herself in this situation, even though she was employed and insured when she first got her diagnosis:

That rings true for Janet Literski, 57, who had purchased health insurance as an independent contractor working in sales. When she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008 Literski discovered her insurance covered only part of her surgical costs and none of her diagnostic tests. Then there were co-payments and deductibles. By the time she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years later, she was about $150,000 in medical debt.

In 2011, no longer able to work, Literski and her disabled husband filed for bankruptcy. “It was a gut wrenching decision because you feel like a personal failure, and that makes me angry because I had tried to do everything right,” Literski says. “I had health insurance, I was working.”

Literski is now covered by Medicaid and receives disability payments and though she hasn’t been told she’s in remission, she says she is “healthy enough.”

[The study's lead author, Dr. Scott Ramsey,] says cancer centers need to do a better job of assessing each patient’s financial status, offering credit counseling, and managing patient care.

Even bigger disparities emerged when the researchers broke down the cancer patients in their study by different demographics. The younger groups were up to 10 times more likely to go broke than the older patients, and non-white women were the most likely to run out of money.The cancer that is associated with the highest risk of bankruptcy is thyroid cancer — likely because that disease mostly affects younger women. On the other hand, older men with prostate cancer are the least likely to reach financial rock bottom.

Ramsey and his researchers first presented their research in 2011, and their final findings were published in the Health Affairs journal this week. The timing of the study’s release coincides with some recent pressure to help lower the cost of cancer drugs. Last month, a group of over 100 doctors criticized Big Pharma companies for making “life-saving” cancer drugs too expensive for Americans to afford. The doctors asserted that the “unsustainable drug prices” were “causing harm to patients,” and urged reforms in this area to ensure that cancer patients don’t have to go without the treatment they need.

Cancer patients have also been recently caught up in the budget battles resulting from sequestration. At the end of April, cancer clinics blasted Congress for taking legislative action to restore the sequester cuts that were causing airport delays rather than working to address the cuts that are undermining Americans’ chemotherapy treatment. As a result of the automatic budget cuts, some Americans are being forced to delay their chemotherapy, and some cancer clinics may even be forced to close their doors.

This post was originally published by ThinkProgress.



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Mm M.
MmAway M4 years ago

Thank you for posting this, dang sadly we are all goners period!

Kay Martin
.4 years ago

Thank you Tara, great article very informative. also good comments from the members.Keep the information coming, the more we know , the better our decisions can be.about our health coverage, diagnosis, and treatment,

Patricia H.
Patricia H.4 years ago

I agree with Ryan Y.

B Jackson
BJ J4 years ago

Attorneys and insurance companies are as dishonest as politicians. Insurance is a huge ripoff.

Lydia Weissmuller Price

This is so wrong.

Katie K.
Katie K4 years ago

This is were health insurance is laughable. I refer to it as legalized strong arming. If you get sick which the percentage of us will, if you live long enough, they may pay some of what's ailing you but then you become respondsible for whatever "they" decide isn't covered under your policy. It's a lose lose proposition for the most of us but not for the one's that can afford it. I guess it's their way to thin out the herd and take the lions share.
Stay healthy my friends.

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

KD D......I'm not sure what province you're in, but a couple of things I am curious about.....Why were you denied UI ? Were you employed long enough to collect it?....Depending on what you were employed as, you can use sick time, vacation time, etc....You obviously have to pay for the medical forms to be filled out and probably have to continue to pay premiums for your medical coverage...I applied for disability and was approved the first time....maybe because I was older? for the cost of the injections, sometimes drug companies will cover costs or a is a long process, but still 100% better than any American system......I hope you are well now.

Cheryl L.
Cheryl L4 years ago

Cancer is an IMMENSELY huge and profitable industry. I personally believe there is a cure but in America, we will never see it because of CAPITALISM. Why would they give us the cure and kill their "cash cow?" My husband died of cancer within 10 days of diagnosis. 7 of those days he spent in the hospital and received ONE radiation treatment. For about 3 hrs. he received meds to prepare him for chemo, which they never were able to administer. 98% of his stay consisted of occupying the hospital bed, receiving fluids (he could scarcely swallow) and barely eating a thing. Charges for 7 days was over $75,000. Needless to say, the insurance company DID NOT APPROVE that much for payment. Fortunately, at that time my husband's insurance covered most of the costs. The insurance I have now for myself that costs $500 a month doesn't cover anything until I pay $5,000, then pays 50% till I pay another $5,000. A person is literally ONE illness away from bankruptcy, just like they say. I'm hanging on till next year to get on Medicare, IF the Republicans don't yank it out from under me!

Beth M.
Beth M4 years ago

This should not happen in America, but it does.

Even having insurance, I know all too well about those extreme co-payments and deductibles. We had to use my husband's credit card to pay medical bills and we are now paying a ridiculous interest rate on top of that. Add the poor economy and not being able to find a job, how can you pay off the credit card? So you make minimum payments knowing that you will never be able to pay it off.

Katherine D4 years ago

Although Canadian medical covers most things, it also does not extend to all treatments. But that is not a complete picture of what can transpire when diagnosed with a severe illness. I was treated for stage 3 breast cancer in 2004 - 2005. I became so ill I was barely able to rise from my bed, let alone work. Apart from the cost of prescriptions, the oncologist prescribed weekly injections that would have cost me over $2000 for a single injection. I was not able to work, not able to apply for unemployment insurance as I was told to apply for disability. Disability would not come into effect for 3 months after I was assessed and allowed. Assessment took 3 months, then I was refused. I was at the mercy of my family to cover my expenses. After appealing for disability, I finally qualified. I was later told that they always deny and everyone has to appeal, adding months to whole frustrating procedure. I got my first disability cheque about 12 months after first applying. It was backdated to the date I had applied, one decent outcome, which I immediately gave to my family. Unfortunately, the allowable figure was so paltry that a human being could not exist, maybe covering a quarter to a third of normal living expenses. If I was alone and did not have my family, my parents, I would have probably ended in the street. I am still paying for the debt incurred as I am still not able to work due to debilitating pain and weakness as a result of too much radiation. I went