Breast Cancer

Debt Collectors Are Hunting Half of Women with Metastatic Breast Cancer — Help Us, Please!

You have cancer that isn’t curable. The doctor visits and medications are keeping you alive. And then come the bill collectors.

Facing metastatic breast cancer is, of course, enough of a struggle before figuring out how to pay for it. Because there is technically no cure for stage four breast cancer, people may be encouraged to try drugs that come with very hefty price tags in order to manage their disease. These are, in some cases, remarkable medications that keep women alive. However, if insurance is unavailable, the price can be financially crippling. Some of these drugs can cost $10,000 per month if you are forced to pay out of pocket.

A researcher named Dr. Stephanie Wheeler, who works at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, found that 49% of metastatic breast cancer patients say they are being housed by collection agencies for past due medical bills related their cancer. Over 1,000 women were surveyed for the study, and about 1/3 of the participants were uninsured. Most of the uninsured patients (90%) said they were contacted by debt collectors, compared to about 1/3 of insured patients. But among both insured and uninsured, nearly 70% of those surveyed said they were distressed about the financial burden of paying for cancer.

The term “financial toxicity” is thrown around by people who work in healthcare, but what can you actually do if you’re faced with paying these really steep cancer bills?

If you have insurance, wait to pay bills until you have the final Explanation of Benefits (EOB) from your insurance company. If you receive a notice that says your bills will soon be turned over to a collection agency, you may want to call the hospital or cancer center where you were treated and see what your options are. If possible, you want to avoid having your bills sent to a debt collector – but this new study indicates that a lot of people with metastatic disease are unable to avoid that. Some hospitals do offer a delay of payment or an extended payment plan if a patient requests it.

If you do not have health insurance, there are still options for getting help with the bills. Some medical facilities get money from the government so they can offer free or low-cost care through a service called the Hill-Burton Program. Hill-Burton may provide coverage for services that are not paid for by other government programs like Medicare and Medicaid, according to the American Cancer Society. It can help a lot to talk to your hospital or cancer center’s social worker or financial counselor … they may be able to direct you towards a program like Hill-Burton that you are eligible for.

In a report detailing the price of oncology drugs from before 2000 to 2014, Dr. Hagop Kantarjian, of MD Anderson Cancer Center, along with several other researchers, concluded that the price of oncology drugs skyrocketed in 15 years – and it shows no sign of stopping. The average cost of a cancer drug for one year of therapy was less than $10,000 before 2000. By 2005, that price had risen to $30,000 to $50,000. And by 2012, 12 of the new drugs approved to treat cancer were priced above $100,000 per year.

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