Dec 6, 2019
Dr. Nate Pennell talks with Dr. Joel Segel about “Coverage, Financial Burden, and the Affordable Care Act for Cancer Patients.”
Article available online at Journal of Oncology Practice.
Support for Journal of Oncology Practice podcasts is provided in part by AstraZeneca, dedicated to advancing options and providing hope for people living with cancer. More information at astrazeneca.us.com.
Welcome to the latest Journal of Oncology Practice podcast, brought to you by the ASCO Podcast Network, a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content, and offering enriching insight into the world of cancer care. You can find all recordings, including this one, at podcast.asco.org.
My name is Dr. Nate Pennell, medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic and consultant editor at the JOP.
Medical care can be very expensive in the United States. And a diagnosis of cancer can be a huge shock, both physically, mentally and financially. Medical expenses don't just impact financial lives, but may also impact treatment outcomes, as even patients who are cured of their cancer may be left with a significant amount of debt.
One of the primary goals of the Affordable Care Act-- so-called Obamacare-- was to increase the number of citizens covered by health insurance, so that these financial burdens would be lessened. And we know that as the result of the Affordable Care Act, overall insurance coverage did increase. But how well did this work for patients with cancer specifically? And what impact has it had on financial burdens?
With me today to discuss these issues is Dr. Joel Segel, assistant professor of health policy and administration at the Penn State University. We'll be discussing his paper, Coverage, Financial Burden, and the Affordable Care Act for Cancer Patients, to be published in the October 2019 JOP. Welcome Dr. Segel. And thanks for joining me today.
Thank you for having me.
So can you start, for our audience, just by putting the general landscape into perspective for us. What are the financial burdens that cancer patients go through, especially those who are in lower incomes?
Sure. So there's certainly been a lot of evidence that cancer patients face, obviously, a number of medical care and health burdens, but also financial burdens. And in some cases, the financial burden can be pretty significant.
We also know that certain groups are probably disproportionately affected. So we know lower income, especially sort of racial and ethnic minorities, and especially some of the younger cancer patients can face significant financial burdens, but it also varies quite a bit. And so the evidence is certainly mixed in terms of how it's measured, how a financial burden is experienced by these different patients, but it can be as extreme that there is evidence that 2% to 3% can experience financial bankruptcy. So these can be pretty significant financial burdens.
And I guess the last thing would be there's probably two ways in which a patient can face a significant financial burden. So one is, and the one that we actually focus on most in our paper will be, the financial burden that results from medical care costs. We can also think about that, obviously, cancer can affect an individual's ability to work. So there can also be an additional financial burden if they're unable to work or they have to cut back on their hours, and that leads to a reduction in their income.
And is there evidence that patients' insurance status factors into their financial strain and burden?
Yes, there's certainly evidence that patients that have more comprehensive coverage, especially those that are higher income, that may help to mitigate much of the financial burden, whereas patients-- and that's one reason why younger patients sometimes have less comprehensive coverage. And they also may have less in savings and be less prepared to deal with some of the financial burdens.
And I think that makes perfect sense. And so what was in the Affordable Care Act that was designed to help patients deal with this?
The Affordable Care Act is an extensive law with a whole bunch of different features. I think there are several that are probably particularly relevant for cancer patients. So one is the one that's probably talked about a lot, which is the Medicaid Expansion. So initially, states were required to expand Medicaid. Due to a Supreme Court case, it became optional. So certain states decided to expand Medicaid, and that meant that they expanded who would be eligible. So primarily lower income adults, particularly ones without children, became eligible for Medicaid in certain states. So that's one piece.
I think the other one that's come up a lot, especially in a lot of the news stories, would be the restrictions on preexisting conditions. So certainly leading up to the Affordable Care Act, one major concern was that individuals, particularly-- cancer was one of the prominent examples would be if they had previously been diagnosed with cancer, they might have trouble either obtaining health insurance coverage or being renewed for health insurance coverage. So the Affordable Care Act made it so that regardless of what health care conditions an individual had, they were guaranteed renewability of the health insurance or the ability to purchase a health insurance plan.
And I think the last two general sections that might also affect cancer patients would be, one, they set up a number of state-based health insurance exchanges to allow individuals to purchase health insurance, and particularly for individuals who are buying individual plans and not through their employer, prior to the Affordable Care Act, especially for those with cancer, might have had difficulty purchasing a health insurance plan. So these state-based exchanges were an opportunity for individuals to purchase health insurance, and depending on their income with subsidies. So there were both subsidies for the premiums, or what an individual would pay each month for their health insurance plan, as well as cost-sharing subsidies. So for lower income individuals, they could become eligible for additional assistance to help cover some of their medical care costs.
And then, I guess, the last part would be that the Affordable Care Act placed limits on what an individual would have to pay out of pocket, both in terms of within a given year, and also, they got rid of some of the lifetime limits to health insurance.
OK. So it's obviously a complex law with a lot going on. But fundamentally, ultimately, the hope was that more people would be insured and that fewer people would suffer the consequences of having to pay for expensive medical care without having the insurance to help them with that.
So with that now put into perspective, take us through your study. How did you design this? And what were you hoping to look for?
So what we wanted to do was to take a look at, in particular, the non-elderly population who had been diagnosed with cancer. So what we did is we took a look at a large nationally representative data set, the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, which follows a random sample of individuals across the United States for a period of two years. And within that, we then try to identify a non-elderly-- and by non-elderly, that'd be ages 18 to 64-- who had been previously diagnosed with cancer, or who, in the data, we could observe that they had some utilization for which there was a diagnosis of cancer.
And we then further restricted it, for much of our sample, to the lower income population. So that would be individuals who lived in a family that was at less than 400% of the federal poverty level. I guess to give a bit of a sense of that, that would be about $48,000 for an individual or $100,000 for a family of four currently. And we specifically chose that threshold, because that's the threshold by which individuals qualify for premium subsidies on the state-based exchange.
In particular, what we're going to look at is, first, we're going to look at coverage, so the number of months an individual spent either uninsured with Medicaid coverage or with private coverage. Among those with private coverage, we also took a look at whether they were enrolled in a high deductible health plan. We also looked at spending in terms of both their overall spending and also their out of pocket spending. And then, finally, to get a better sense of some of the financial burdens that families might face, we looked at both the change in what this family had to pay out of pocket for their health insurance premiums, so just the part that the family or individual pays as well as the fraction that a family pays for their health care costs, and that would be both the medical costs as well as the out of pocket premium.
And our last one, in addition to the fraction of income spent, would be whether they crossed a threshold of 20% of their family income spent on health care costs, which is a commonly used measure of high medical burden.
OK. So I think that makes sense focusing on that group. So what did you find?
So we look at a couple of different samples, both the lower income cancer population as well as the higher income cancer population. And we look at sort of how those outcomes changed from before the Affordable Care Act to after the Affordable Care Act. And in addition, we were going to make some comparisons to try to get a better sense of whether these changes looked different for different groups, so whether the higher income cancer group, how do they compare to the lower income cancer group, how the different cancer groups might compare to a population with a similar income level, but without cancer.
Similar to other studies, we see a significant improvement in health insurance coverage among the low income or the lower income sample with cancer. We find that that's driven largely by both an increase in Medicaid coverage as well as an increase in the high deductible health plans. So people seem to be enrolling in either Medicaid or private coverage, and that tends to be with some of the higher deductible health care plans. We see similar changes for individuals who what we'll call current cancer, and those are the ones who not only have been diagnosed with cancer, but show some utilization in the current year.
And then, I guess, in addition, what we find, we find something slightly different in the higher income cancer sample, and that's that they also experience an increase in the enrollment in high deductible health plans, but they also see a significant increase in their out of pocket premiums as well as the fraction of family income spent on health care. And so that's what we see in terms of just comparing pre and post. But we also do a number of comparison to some different groups to try to tease out sort of what might be driving, and sort of how similar the cancer population might look in terms of their improvements to some of the other population.
You mentioned that a lot of this had to do with the expansion of Medicaid, but of course, that that was rather sporadic because not every state expanded Medicaid. Did you look regionally at these numbers or is this basically nationwide?
So it's nationwide. In some of our adjusted analyses, we're able to control for region. But actually, one of the limitations of our study is that in the data that we have available, we can't identify an individual's state. So we don't know whether or not they're necessarily in an expansion state or a non-expansion state.
Yeah, because one of the first things that occurs to me is that if everyone had expanded, would the number be larger? And is there any evidence of the Affordable Care Act improving coverage and financial burdens specifically in states that didn't expand Medicaid? But I think that would be an interesting thing to look at maybe in the future.
Absolutely, and there's certainly some evidence to suggest that within cancer populations, generally, there does seem to be improved health insurance coverage, in particular, in some of the Medicaid Expansion states precisely for the reasons that, I think, you're mentioning.
One of the other things you looked at is you looked at a comparison group with a higher income level, what did you find in that group sure so one of the comparisons we make is that some changes in our outcomes between the lower income cancer sample and the higher income cancer sample what we see is maybe not surprisingly there's less of a change in health insurance coverage among the higher income cancer sample part of that is that they've had they had higher coverage rates to begin with. But what we also see is an increase in the out-of-pocket premium of about $800 per year for the higher income sample relative to the lower income sample. And we also see it relative to lower income sample that day they experience about a two to three percentage point increase in the fraction of their income spent on health care costs. What we find seems to be driving that is actually
more of a modest increase in the fraction spent among the higher income cancer sample along with sort of a very modest decrease in the lower income sample where are you going to go from here with these data what future studies do you have planned and what ideas can you pull from this to try to help reduce future financial burdens on cancer patients. So part of it is trying to get access to some of the restricted data where we would actually be able to identify what state people are and so we could get a much better sense of whether we're seeing some of these changes differentially in expansion states versus non-expansion states.
Also, with some additional restricted data, we'd able to get a better sense of how these patients might be transitioning across different types of health insurance plans once they're diagnosed with cancer. So right now, we've got a mix in terms of patients who are in active treatment and more recently diagnosed, along with patients who may have been diagnosed further back. I mean, unfortunately, in the data we currently had, we're not able to accurately distinguish exactly when they were diagnosed. But again, we'd be able to better tease out some of those differences between people who had maybe been diagnosed longer ago versus more recently.
So one of the things that everyone is worried about today, of course, is the rapidly rising cost of medical care, especially drugs in patients with cancer. That probably poses a challenge to doing this kind of research showing pre and post expenses when the actual cost of care is going up during the study period.
It's certainly an important thing to consider. Obviously, during this time period, the cost of, in particular, some of the cancer therapies has gone up significantly. We try to account for it, I guess, in a couple of different ways. One was going to be we're comparing some of the higher income and the lower income populations to get a sense of whether they differentially experience some of the financial burden. So to the extent that both lower income and higher income cancer patients are facing the same increase in drug prices, we would control for that to some extent.
I guess the other comparison we made was to compare, in particular, the lower income cancer sample to a lower income sample that did not have cancer. And actually, interestingly, what we find is we don't really find much of a significant difference between those two samples. So what that suggests is that the Affordable Care Act improves coverage and may help to mitigate some of the financial burden, but it does similarly for both cancer and non-cancer patients who are low income.
And that makes sense. As much as we pay attention to cancer because that's our field, it's only one of major health issues. Especially in a non-Medicare age population, I would think there'd be a lot of other competing risks. But still, it sounds like that is a good control over the overall rising costs of health care.
Well, Dr. Segel, thanks so much for joining me for the podcast today.
Thank you for having me.
Until next time, thank our listeners as well for listening to the Journal of Oncology Practice podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, don't forget to give us a rating or a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. While you're there, be sure to subscribe, so you never miss an episode.
JOP's podcasts are just one of ASCO's many podcast programs. You can find all recordings at podcast.asco.org. The full text of the paper will be available online at ascopubs.org/journal/jop in October 2019. This is Dr. Nate Pennell for the Journal of Oncology Practice signing off.