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APRIL 16, 2020 — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many cancer patients are finding it increasingly difficult to receive the care they need and are facing financial challenges.
Half of the cancer patients and survivors who responded to a recent survey reported changes, delays, or disruptions to the care they were receiving. The survey, with 1219 respondents, was conducted by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN).
“The circumstances of this virus — from the fact cancer patients are at higher risk of severe complications should they be diagnosed with COVID-19, to the fact many patients are facing serious financial strain caused by the virus’ economic effect — make getting care especially difficult,” Keysha Brooks-Coley, vice president of federal advocacy for ACS CAN, told Medscape Medical News.
Nearly a quarter (24%) of survey respondents reported a delay in care or treatment. The proportion was slightly more (27%) among those currently receiving active treatment.
In addition, 12% (13% in active treatment) stated that not only was their care delayed but that they also have not been told when services would be rescheduled.
As previously reported by Medscape Medical News, many oncology groups have issued new guidelines for cancer care in reaction to the current crisis. These include recommendations to delay cancer treatment in order to avoid exposing cancer patients to the virus.
Half of Those in Active Treatment Report Disruptions
The survey was initiated by ACS CAN on March 25 and was distributed over a 2-week period. The goal was to gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 was affecting cancer patients and survivors in the United States. Of the 1219 respondents, half (51%) were cancer patients currently undergoing active treatment.
Among the patients and survivors who were currently in active treatment, 55% reported that there have been changes, delays, or disruptions in their care. The services most frequently affected included in-person provider visits (50%), supportive services (20%), and imaging procedures to monitor tumor growth (20%).
In addition, 8% reported that their treatment, including chemotherapy and immunotherapy, had been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost all of the survey respondents were covered by some type of insurance; 49% had coverage through an employer, 32% were covered by Medicare, 7% had privately purchased insurance, and 4% were covered through Medicaid.
Many cancer patients had already been having difficulty paying for their care, but for a substantial proportion of survey respondents, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem. More than one third (38%) stated that COVID-19 “has had a notable impact on their financial situation that affects their ability to pay for health care.”
The most common financial problems that were related to access to care include reduced work hours (14%), reduced investment values (11%), having difficulty affording food and supplies because of staying at home to avoid contracting the virus (9%), and becoming unemployed (8%).
A reduction in work hours and job loss were of particular concern to respondents because of the possible effects these would have on their health insurance coverage. Of those who reported that they or a family member living with them had lost a job, 43% had employer-sponsored health insurance. Additionally, 58% of patients or a family member whose working hours had been reduced also had health insurance through their employer.
Among the entire cohort, 28% reported that they were worried that the financial impact of COVID-19 would make it difficult to pay for the healthcare they need as cancer survivors. This concern was highly correlated with income. Almost half (46%) of patients who earned $30,000 or less reported that they were worried, but even in household with incomes over $110,000 per year, 21% were also concerned about the financial impact.
“Now more than ever, patients need to be able to get, keep, and afford health coverage to treat their disease,” commented Brooks-Coley.
“ACS CAN is working every day to make clear to Congress and the administration the real and immediate challenges cancer patients and survivors face during this pandemic,” said Brooks-Coley.
With nearly 50 other professional and advocacy groups, ACS CAN has sent letters to congressional leadership and the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services asking them to make policy changes that would help patients.
The proposed action points include having insurers allow patients to use providers who are out of network if necessary; waiving site-specific precertification and prior authorization for cancer treatment; utilizing shared decision-making between patients and providers in deciding whether to use home infusion without pressure from the insurer; allowing patients to obtain 90-day supplies of medication; increasing funding for state Medicaid programs and assistance for those who have lost employee-sponsored coverage; and improving telehealth services.
“We urge Congress and the administration to keep the needs of cancer patients and survivors in mind as they continue to address the public health crisis,” she said.