(Bloomberg) — Gale Tickner doesn’t even know how much money she owes these days — it could be $100,000, it could be $200,000. With every surgery or unexpected complication, the medical bills for her cancer treatment keep piling up.
Tickner has health insurance, but the numerous copayments for her hospital visits, procedures and drugs over the past year and a half have made her treatment a financial burden.
“We’re just going to take it a day at a time to pay what we can, when we can,” she said.
The rising cost of care is a source of growing alarm — and not just for patients. It will be a subject of debate at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago this weekend, where doctors are examining new ways to package cancer treatment to make it more affordable.
Cancer care has long been costly. There are signs it’s getting even more expensive for consumers, who are now required to shoulder a greater portion of medical bills in the form of insurance copays. ASCO has pointed to a National Institutes of Health study that estimates total treatment costs in the U.S. will rise 40 percent to $175 billion between 2010 and 2020.
Drug prices are part of the concern. Global spending on oncology medication is projected to rise 6 percent to 8 percent a year through 2018 to as much as $147 billion, the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics said in a report this month. That compares with a 6.5 percent rate over the past five years. The newest therapies in the market, which cost $100,000 to $150,000 a year before discounts, are being used in more and more types of cancer and tested in combination with one another.
“People tend to think it’s a problem for the lower socioeconomic class, but traditionally those individuals have more resources available to them,” said Kim Bell, an administrator who helps patients with financial management at the Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Institute. “But it’s really hard for the middle and upper-middle class because there are not that many people who can afford that kind of thing out of pocket.”
The soaring costs are leading to changes at hospitals such as the Cleveland Clinic, which is adding staff specifically to help patients navigate their insurance policies and understand what their out-of-pocket expenses are going to look like from the start. A patient could face bills of as much as $50,000 a month, Bell said, depending on the types of drugs used in their treatment and the amount of insurance coverage.
Last week, ASCO announced a proposal to have oncology practices paid for better managing patients’ care. They would get a $750 upfront payment for treatment planning, $200 a month during treatment, $50 a month for monitoring during breaks in active treatment, and $100 a month for participation in clinical trials.