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Cancer treatment becoming unaffordable for many

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

Cancer treatment is becoming less and less affordable and many patients are abandoning treatment altogether because they simply cannot sustain the out-of-pocket costs. Dr. Lee Schwartzberg, an oncologist and medical director at West Clinic in Memphis, Tenn., did a study examining the factors that contributed to patients quitting their oral cancer drugs and concluded that the monthly expenditures for cancer care simply made it unfeasible to continue. Here is the big shocker: even the insured were not protected against financial ruin and bankruptcy. Co-payments for some of the more expensive oral cancer medications can reach upwards of $500 a month, not to mention the cost of transportation, doctor visit co-payments and lost wages.

Since cancer is the second leading cause of death in the country, the news is concerning and brings up the sensitive debate about medical care costs and alternatives to our current health care system. ASCO president Dr. Michael Link, a pediatric oncologist, said access to healthcare should be a national priority. Not only is the cancer rate expected to climb due to an aging population, but affordable cancer treatment itself is an imperative to the country’s overall standing as a leader in quality of life. This standing was questioned in today’s other big news topic rating the relative happiness quotient amongst the world’s developed economies. The results indicate that an affordable health care system is one of the crucial factors; a country cannot be deemed happy if it cannot care for its citizens’ health.

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A diagnosis of cancer increases a person’s risk of personal bankruptcy, sometimes an 8% rise in cases of lung cancer, according to a study conducted by Dr. Scott Ramsey, while Dr. Ronald Ennis, a radiation oncologist at St. Luke's-Roosevelt and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, studied the impact a weak economy has on the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The results show what might be expected: a dramatic decline in cancer treatments during times of high unemployment.

Cancer treatment is becoming more experimental; while traditional treatments relied mostly on intravenous drug administration, increasingly more cancer medications come in pill form and command a higher price tag to manufacture. The costs for cancer care topped $124 billion in 2010 in the United States, led by breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). That number is expected to rise as more advanced treatments -- targeted therapies that attack specific cancer cells and often have fewer side effects -- are adopted as the standards of care. The NCI projects those costs to reach at least $158 billion by 2020. With such costs looming on the horizon, many in the medical community feel our health care system is inadequate to meet its future needs. Dr. Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer for the ACS, said the whole American medical system needs to be overhauled.

"We need to change the culture of doctors and patients and how medicine is practiced. I wish it were as simple as (enacting) legislation," he said.

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