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The Affordable Care Act is bringing sweeping changes to American health care. Lisa Zamosky is here to help you navigate the health care maze and understand how these changes affect you.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Battling Cancer and Financial Ruin

Several recent studies drive home the devastating impact cancer has not only on people's health, but their finances as well.

One out of seven cancer patients spends more than 20% of his or her income on health-related costs, one study found. A second study, presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual meeting, shows that bankruptcy rates among cancer survivors were almost twice as high one year after being diagnosed as compared with the general population.

None of this surprises Joanna Morales, director of the Cancer Legal Resource Center and adjunct professor at Loyola Marymount University. Cancer treatment is expensive, and most people don't realize that health insurance coverage is limited, she says.

"You think you're paying these high premiums for excellent coverage and then when you're diagnosed with a serious condition like cancer with such expensive treatment -- a 10% or 20% co-pay, if treatment costs $200,000 over a period of time, amounts to $20,000 that you have to pay out of pocket, at a minimum," Morales says.

And financial troubles tend creep up, given the fact that upon being diagnosed with cancer, people have the understandable tendency to focus exclusively on their treatment and only consider the financial implications later.

"After someone has gotten through treatment then they turn their attention to their financial situation. They've already been through rather expensive treatment and then realize that the only way out of their financial predicament is bankruptcy," Morales says.

Knowing Where to Turn

You can't do much about the cost of cancer treatment, but there are strategies to adopt and resources to tap into to help protect your finances while you attend to your health.

Health insurance: Make sure you take the time (or ask someone close to you to help) to sort through the details of your insurance plan -- assuming you have coverage. Be sure to understand what services are or are not covered, whether you need pre-authorization for certain types of care and any other details that will impact reimbursement.

Protecting income: If you need to take time off work to care for yourself or a loved one, private, state and federal disability benefits are available to help offset the loss of income.

Many people either forget or don't realize that they have access to disability insurance through work, according to Morales. Ask your company's human resources or benefits department about what's available.

In five states (California, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Hawaii) and Puerto Rico, state disability insurance programs allow you to draw on benefits for up to a year to help offset income loss (check with your state's department of labor).

Two federal programs -- the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) -- are also available to help replace lost income. Go to to find out more information.

Managing bills: Protect your finances by making sure your medical bills are accurate and that you are being charged only for care you received, Morales advises. See my previous post about spotting and fighting medical billing errors, which can add significant and unnecessary costs to your care.

"Know that medical bills are negotiable, so you can talk to providers about writing off certain amounts or working out payment plans, which are two practical options as alternatives to filing for bankruptcy," Morales says.

In addition to state and county-based programs, many private organizations help pay for treatment, as well as rent, food, child care, and other practical daily living expenses.

Visit the Cancer Legal Resource Center, CancerCare and disease-specific organizations, such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for more information.

Bernard, D. Journal of Clinical Oncology, advance online edition; May 31, 2011.
Joanna Morales, director, Cancer Legal Resource Center; adjunct professor, Loyola Marymount University.

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Posted by: Lisa Zamosky at 7:15 AM


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