After cancer, hefty health care costs

PENN STATE (US) — Cancer survivors spend an average of $9,300 per year on health care, up to $5,000 more than people who have never had cancer, according to a new study.

The largest out-of-pocket expense is for prescription medicine.

People are considered cancer survivors from the moment they are diagnosed through the end of their lives. Advances in medicine enable more people to survive cancer, but there is little information regarding the long-term health and economic effects.

“The fact that so many more people are surviving for a long time has shifted the attention of the oncology community—as well as public health officials—away from a focus simply on treatment and keeping people alive. Now they are starting to think about life after cancer,” says Pamela Farley Short, professor of health policy and administration at Penn State.

The research, published in the journal Cancer, focuses on cancer survivors ranging in age from 25 through 64 years. Prior to the study, most information regarding cancer survivors concentrated on patients 65 years and older, relying on data from Medicare.

The new study uses national data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) and improves on earlier survivor studies based on that survey, which were limited to survivors who received care specifically for cancer in any given year. The MEPS data was linked another data source to systematically identify everyone in the survey who had ever been diagnosed with cancer.

“We went through an analytic exercise of matching up cancer survivors to otherwise similar people in the survey who don’t have a history of cancer,” says Short.

“The question we’re trying to answer is, how much did the fact of having cancer add to the expenditures of cancer survivors? If they hadn’t had cancer, how much less would their annual health care bills be and how much less would they be spending out of pocket?

Of the people identified as cancer survivors in the new study,  53 percent were missed in earlier studies. Consequently the researchers were able to learn more about cancer survivors and their health care spending.

As a group, cancer survivors in the U.S. are disproportionately women, non-Hispanic whites, unmarried—single, divorced or widowed—and publicly insured. However, men paid 16 percent of cancer-related increases in health care out of pocket, and women paid 9 percent.

“This research is also important because cancer survivors are a sympathetic group for calling attention to the challenges that many people face in paying for health care,” Short says.

“Almost everybody has a friend or someone in their family who’s had cancer, so it resonates. In a way, I think cancer survivors are poster children for a lot of the issues that we face as a society in considering whether and how to proceed with health care reform.”

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