Right on trend with all health spending, cancer costs double

The cost of treating cancer has doubled over the past 20 years, but those costs are in line with overall trends in health spending. And while more people are getting cancer as the U.S. population ages, treatment has shifted away from hospitals to outpatient settings, finds a study in Monday’s edition of the journal Cancer.In 1987, the total cost of cancer treatment in the United States was $24.7 billion (in 2007 dollars), compared with $48.1 billion a year during 2001-2005. The cost of cancer treatments as a percentage of overall medical treatment has stayed steady at about 5% over the past 20 years.

One thing that has changed is who pays for cancer care. Medicaid costs have increased by 488%, private insurer costs by 137%, and Medicare by 99%, the researchers found. Out-of-pocket costs paid by patients, including co-pays and deductibles, fell by 7%.

How the new health care bill will affect the numbers isn’t clear, says Florence Tangka, a health economist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and senior author on the paper.

As cancer treatment has moved out of hospitals and into clinics or doctors’ offices, the share of cancer costs for inpatient (i.e. hospital) care fell from 64.4% of total cancer costs in 1987 to 27.5% a year during 2001-2005.

With the tremendous upsurge in treatments available for cancer between 1989 and 2005, it’s “surprising” but “good news” that cancer costs are not growing faster than health care costs overall, says Len Nichols, director of the Center for Health Policy Research at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Those costs might be significantly higher were the surveys done today, says Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer with the American Cancer Society. Many new, expensive treatments have come on the market in the past five years, he says. One example is the newly approved prostate cancer drug Provenge, which is expected to cost $93,000 per patient.

In fact, a March analysis in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that spending on cancer care increased by $63 billion from 1990 to 2008, attributed partly to the rising costs of new drugs and treatments. Also, a 2006 survey by USA TODAY, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found that one in four cancer patients or their families said they used up all or most of their savings to pay for treatment.

The Cancer study uses data from national surveys of medical expenses done in 1987 and 2001 through 2005.

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