Cancer costs double over 18-year span, remain in-line with other health cost increases, study finds

As the number of older Americans has increased over the past 18 years, so too have the number of cancer cases; so much so, in fact, that annual cancer costs have nearly doubled in that time span, from $24.7 billion in 1987 to $48.1 billion in 2005, according to a study published in the May 10 edition of the journal Cancer. But has the quality care gotten any better? That's the question that really needs to be answered, according to Dr. Thomas Getzen of Temple University, a health economist not involved with the study, reports MedPage Today

"What we should be most concerned about is whether we are getting better at treating cancer--if your dollars spent are making Americans healthier," Getzen wrote in an email to MedPage

While questions about quality remain, the study did determine that the rate increases were comparable with other medical costs over the same stretch of time. In other words, cancer costs have continuously represented roughly 5 percent of all medical costs in the nearly two-decade span. 

Lead author Dr. Florence Tangka, PhD, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also determined that much of the care for cancer moved out of inpatient settings, like hospital rooms, and into doctors' offices and other outpatient settings. Furthermore, the dynamics of who pays for what shifted slightly: In 1987, private insurers paid about 42 percent of all cancer related medical costs, with Medicare paying 33 percent and out-of-pocket costs coming to 17 percent. In 2005, private insurers paid nearly 50 percent of those costs, while Medicare paid for 34 percent and patients themselves paid 8 percent.

For some specific payers, cancer costs increased exponentially. For example, Medicaid costs increased by 488 percent--about $1.3 billion, while private insurer costs rose by 137 percent ($13.8 billion). Out-of-pocket costs, meanwhile, decreased by $288 million--7 percent.

Tangka and her colleagues used data from the 2001 through 2005 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey and the 1987 National Medical Care Expenditure Survey in the study. Tangka warned, however, that each of those surveys only "captured a fraction of total national health expenditures," according to MedPage, and thus, could potentially represent underestimated data. 

To learn more:
- read this MedPage Today piece
- here's the abstract
- check out this USA Today article