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Hospitalization is a major reason why seniors with the government-funded insurance program have high out-of-pocket costs for cancer care, the researchers concluded.
"The spending associated with a new cancer diagnosis gets very high quickly, even if you have insurance," said study co-author Lauren Hersch Nicholas, an assistant professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"The physical disease is terrible and then you have to figure out how to deal with the economic fallout associated with paying to treat it," she said in a university news release.
Nicholas and her colleagues examined data from more than 1,400 Medicare patients diagnosed with cancer between 2002 and 2012.
The researchers found that those without supplemental health insurance had out-of-pocket costs that averaged one-quarter of their income. But these costs were as high as 63 percent of income in 10 percent of cases.
The actual annual out-of-pocket costs ranged from about $2,000 to $8,000, according to the study.
Hospitalizations accounted for 12 percent to 46 percent of out-of-pocket cancer spending, depending on whether and what type of supplemental insurance a patient had. Hospitalization is often necessary for surgery and to deal with severe side effects of treatment, the researchers pointed out.
Medicare covers 80 percent of outpatient health costs and has copays of $1,000 for each hospital visit, the researchers noted.
Doctors can reduce hospitalizations with more intensive outpatient management of common side effects, according to the researchers.
They said their findings show that having cancer can cause serious financial hardship for many elderly and disabled people who receive Medicare.
"The health shock can be followed by financial toxicity. In many cases, doctors can bring you back to health, but it can be tremendously expensive and a lot of treatments are given without a discussion of the costs or the financial consequences," Nicholas said.
"We should expect to spend some of our income on health care. But many people are unprepared to spend more than a quarter of their income treating a single disease," she added.
The study findings were published Nov. 23 in the journal JAMA Oncology.
The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has more on Medicare.
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