Healthcare Reform and the Future of Oncology

Sheetal Kircher, MD
Published: Wednesday, Sep 07, 2011

The healthcare system in the United States has become increasingly unsustainable. We hear frequent reports in the media and within our hospitals about the inability to improve health outcomes despite spiraling healthcare costs. The financial burden of cancer care is monumental. In 2008, overall costs were estimated at $228 billion, which included $93 billion in direct medical expenditures, $18.8 billion in lost productivity, and $116.1 billion in indirect costs.1

One example of this economic burden is seen in an analysis of patients with metastatic breast cancer. In this analysis, direct costs averaged $35,164 per year. New targeted-therapy drugs costs range from $20,000 to $50,000 per year per patient, and these costs continue to increase. Another example is seen in colorectal cancer therapy, which increased an incredible 340-fold between 1994 and 2004.2 The drugs we prescribe as oncologists account for 40% of all Medicare prescription costs. This is in contrast to only 4% of federal dollars that are directed toward cancer prevention.3 This article will discuss the impact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) will have on our patients with cancer, on our hospital systems, and on us, the physicians.

Historically, Americans have low rates of adherence to recommended screenings for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers. ”

Impact of Health Reform on a Patient With Cancer



When you combine the costs of tests, imaging, physician services, chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy, the price tag on cancer treatment may range anywhere from $40,000 to more than $100,000 per patient. There are provisions within the PPACA that may offer modest advantages for our patients, including greater scrutiny when raising insurance premiums. Because of the increased requirements for employers to provide insurance coverage, individual states will form health insurance exchanges or cooperatives that offer low-cost options for workers as well as create competition in the marketplace. It is unclear how this will be federally regulated; many of these exchanges may operate differently because they will be created at the state level. Federally, the government will provide subsidies to low-income individuals so they can obtain insurance. With these changes, it has been estimated that 32 million additional individuals may be covered by 2019.4

One of the biggest concerns of patients is whether PPACA will cover preexisting conditions. Under the current plan, children with preexisting conditions such as cancer are protected from being excluded from insurance and will also be covered until the age of 26 under a parent’s insurance plan. For those patients who fall into the category of non–Medicare-eligible retirees older than age 55, there will be access to subsidized high-risk pools and insurers will not be allowed to set annual or lifetime limits on coverage. These changes will likely have a significant impact on patients with cancer who may fall into the age range that is not yet eligible for Medicare benefits.

A major challenge for our patients is finding coverage for their skyrocketing prescription drug costs. This will become especially important in cancer treatment as we increasingly develop targeted agents, many of which are in oral form. Currently, there is a large gap in Medicare Part D coverage. Many patients find themselves in the “donut hole,” causing them to struggle financially because their coverage is lacking. As the PPACA reforms take effect, there will be a $250 subsidy for those affected by the donut hole. By 2020, however, it is projected that 75% of oral medications will be covered by Medicare—a significant improvement over today’s Medicare coverage.

Historically, Americans have low rates of adherence to recommended screenings for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers. Recent Centers for Disease Control data reveal that 38% of Americans older than age 50 have not had their recommended colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy screening, and 24% of women aged 40 to 50 years and 21% of women over age 50 have not had recommended mammogram screening in the last 2 years.5 Preventive, quality-focused, cost-effective care will be the major PPACA initiatives, with preventive services coverage being federally mandated. Medicare will cover 100% of actual charges and fees for preventive care, such as cancer-screening exams. Incentives to Medicare beneficiaries may increase compliance with screening recommendations; this might ultimately save thousands of lives while cutting healthcare costs.


View Conference Coverage
Online CME Activities
TitleExpiration DateCME Credits
Community Practice Connections™: Bridging the Gaps Around Oncology Biosimilars: Assessing the Potential Impact of Emerging Agents to PracticeSep 29, 20181.5
Community Practice Connections: Oncology Best Practice™ Targeting Cell Cycle Progression: The Latest Advances on CDK4/6 Inhibition in Metastatic Breast CancerOct 31, 20181.0
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