High cost of cancer treatments puts patients deeply into debt

The cost of cancer care for some patients is so high that their medical bills can stick around long after they are gone.

That was the case with MaryLou Townsend, a Kentuckian who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 58, NPR reported

Townsend made the decision to use an out-of-network provider to perform surgery to remove the initial tumor. The bills reached $300,000 before her health insurance policy began to cover some of the charges. The Townsend family was left with bills totaling $100,000, including costs for a specific blood thinner that Townsend's insurer declined to pay.

"I always say, yes, $100,000 in debt is horrible," Maggie Woods, director of the health and life division of the Kentucky Department of Insurance, told NPR. "But half a million is much worse. Unfortunately, everyone thinks if it's insurance, it's going to make you 100 percent whole. It's not the case."

But another patient, Maureen Carrigg, wound up with $80,000 in out-of-pocket costs, even though she was meticulous about remaining in-network with her insurer, according to New England Public Radio.

However, Woods brought up an interesting point of debate: Whether providers are responsible for informing patients about upfront costs, such as the blood thinner. "I kind of think that's part of the doctor's job," she said. "If they're going to be writing a prescription that's $1,200 or something like that, they have a responsibility in my opinion to give you all of your options to help you finance this healthcare for your mother."

The costs of treating cancer have risen dramatically over the past couple of decades, and some hospitals have marked up cancer drugs by a factor of 10. It can be the source of potential disputes between patients and providers, particularly over how providers prescribe drugs and how insurers pay for them.

Townsend's daughter, Melinda Townsend-Breslin, negotiated with the hospital where her mother received most of the care. The hospital provided some financial assistance through one of its foundations. She also disputed bills.

But more than a year after her mother died, her father still owes providers about $10,000.

To learn more:
- read the NPR article
- check out the New England Public Radio article