More than half of cancer patients end up with medical debt

Most cancer patients and survivors have to make significant lifestyle changes to afford care and at times incur long-term medical debt, a new survey has found

The Survivor Views survey, conducted by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), reached more than 1,200 cancer patients and survivors in February. Most said they were unprepared for the costs of their care, and more than a quarter attributed financial challenges partly to the pandemic.

The majority of cancer patients and survivors (71%) reported making significant changes such as delaying major purchases, depleting most or all of their savings, going into more credit card debt and borrowing money from relatives and friends. 

About half of patients said they had cancer-related medical debt, and more than half of debt holders reported it going into collections. Nearly half said the debt has negatively impacted their credit. Women and African Americans were far more likely to report medical debt than men and whites, according to the survey.

Those who lived in states where Medicaid was not expanded were also more likely to report medical debt.

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they are worried about affording their care now or in the future. Many of those with debt also said they’ve delayed or avoided medical care for minor issues, while nearly half reported they’ve delayed care for serious issues. The vast majority (78%) said their cancer-related debt accumulated during active treatment; more than a third went into debt at diagnosis, and more than half also incurred debt post-treatment. 

“Cancer patients are clearly suffering the financial fallout from a disease that is incredibly expensive to diagnose, treat and survive,” Lisa Lacasse, president of ACS CAN, said in an announcement. “No patient should have to zero out their savings or take out a loan with long-term consequences to save their lives. We need lawmakers to pass policies that make health care more affordable, and we need them to do so now.”

Making increased subsidies to purchase marketplace health coverage permanent, expanding Medicaid and limiting Medicare out-of-pocket prescription drug costs could improve cost challenges, a report on the findings said.