Cancer Care Costs Squeeze Millions of Americans

"The medical bills didn't help. The diagnosis and not being able to work didn't help," Nunes said. "You're just at the point where you do what they say because you are devastated. ... You just don't think of that stuff when you're told something like this."

Getting Cancer Costs Under Control

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, said the American Cancer Society's report exposes the need for reform.

"This report highlights the needs to get health-care costs under control," he said. "You're seeing that especially when it comes to cancer treatments. Cancer drugs are a driver in these rising costs."

Zirkelbach pointed to a report issued by his group in December that he said addressed the group's ideas for comprehensive health-care reform.

Among the group's proposals, he said, is one that addresses the concern of many that insurance will not cover pre-existing conditions. He said the new proposal would alleviate that concern, but that it would go hand in hand with people maintaining coverage, without gaps.

Zirkelbach added that his organization also advocates creating a government agency that tests treatments, comparing them to see which is the most effective, so that costly treatments do not take up unnecessary health-care dollars. This would complement the Food and Drug Administration, which simply tests that new drugs work, without considering how they compare to current treatments.

But Zirkelbach stressed that the issues in health insurance go beyond cancer care.

"A lot of these issues that this report talks about need to be addressed on a comprehensive basis, not just with regard to cancer treatment. ... The cost of treatment is only part of the financial obligations that an individual has."

Indeed, many with cancer lose their jobs. Zirkelbach cited this as a reason why individuals should consider long-term disability insurance, which would help pay bills when they are out of work because of illnesses. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, about 30 percent of workers in private industry -- in all, about 40 million Americans -- have employer-sponsored long-term disability insurance.

Long-term disability through private insurance can help provide some level of income for people ineligible for government programs, which require disability for a significant time. Social Security disability, which is for people who expect to be out of work temporarily but for more than a year, does not kick in until a person has been out of work because of a medical disability for at least five months. While it is rare to have delays with cancer patients, a delay in hearing time can lead to a longer waiting period for benefits. The payments, based on a complex government formula, will never be equal to job income levels.

Medicare, which is paid to people who are permanently disabled and can never return to work and covers only medical expenses, will not kick in until two years have passed since someone has started collecting Social Security disability benefits, so cancer patients who apply will not receive benefits until 29 months after their diagnosis.

Additionally, Schmidt said, the co-payments with insurance are often too high for people who need continuous treatment, the annual limits may be exceeded by some patients and sometimes the treatments are too limited for what a patient actually needs.

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