Outpatient Costs Top Drug Costs in Some Women With Breast Cancer

Among a sample of younger women with invasive breast cancer and employer-sponsored insurance, outpatient-related out-of-pocket (OOP) costs were greater than drug costs.

For these same patients, prescriptions were largely for nonproprietary anticancer drugs and entailed limited OOP costs. For women with high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) and commercially driven health plans (CDHPs), OOP costs were higher, compared with coverage by more generous plans, according to the Research Letter published in JAMA Network Open.

“You would expect that people undergoing cancer treatment should not have to face very high out-of-pocket costs associated with care regardless of treatment modality because their treatment is largely guideline-indicated, and they have no choices,” stated corresponding author Rena Conti, PhD, associate professor with the school of business, Boston University, in an interview. “If you are diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment, you’re following the recommendation of your doctor, and your doctor is following standard protocols for treatment. In that scenario, Economics 101 suggests that people should not have to pay anything or [should pay] very little, especially for things that are cheap and are known to be effective, because there’s no overuse. Where normally we think that out-of-pocket costs are meant to control overuse, people with breast cancer are not opting to get more than indicated chemotherapy or radiation.”

The analysis of 25,224 women with invasive breast cancer diagnosis and claims for 1 or more of 14 oral anticancer drugs revealed that OOP costs for nondrug outpatient claims represented 79.0% of total costs. OOP drug costs were modest, with a 30-day supply ranging from $0.57-$0.60 for tamoxifen to $134.08-$141.07 for palbociclib.

“We were interested in understanding to what extent women who are insured with private insurance are exposed to out-of-pocket costs for standard breast cancer treatment, both in looking at drugs, but also the other aspects of the treatments they undergo.”

High OOP costs for the oral anticancer prescription drugs that are central to breast cancer treatment are associated with treatment nonadherence and discontinuation. Little has been known, however, about OOP costs of treatment associated with invasive breast cancer among employer-insured women younger than 65 years, the paper says.

“This population may face significant financial burdens related to long-term hormonal-based prevention and enrollment in high-deductible health plans and consumer-driven health plans,” the authors state in their paper.

n the cross-sectional study, which used the national 2018 Marative MarketScan database, 23.1% were HDHP- or CDHP-insured. Fifty-one percent had no OOP costs for drugs. The total mean estimated OOP cost, however, was $1,502.23 per patient, with inpatient costs representing only $112.41 (95% confidence interval, $112.40-$112.42); outpatient costs were $1,186.27 (95% CI, $1,185.67-$1,188.16). Pharmaceutical costs were $203.55 (95% CI, $203.34-$203.78).“We were surprised to find that the vast majority were getting breast cancer treatment with older, very effective, very safe, relatively inexpensive drugs and had limited out-of-pocket costs with some variation – higher costs for the few receiving newer, expensive drugs. The backbone of treatment is the older, generic drugs, which are cheap for both the insurers and the patients. But we found also that women are facing high out-of-pocket costs for nondrug-based therapy – specifically for doctor visits, getting check-ups, diagnostic scans, and maybe other types of treatment, as well. … It’s a very different story than the one typically being told about the preponderance of out-of-pocket costs being drug-related,” Dr. Conti said.

The explanation may be that progress in breast cancer treatment over the last decades has led to effective treatments that are largely now inexpensive. The situation is different with ovarian cancer and many blood cancers such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia and multiple myeloma. For them, the new, innovative, safe, and effective drugs are very expensive, she noted.

“I think that insurers can modulate the out-of-pocket costs associated with drug treatment through formulary design and other tools they have. It’s less easy for them to modulate out-of-pocket costs associated with other modalties of care. Still, for medical care that is obviously necessary, there needs to be a cap on what women should have to pay,” Dr. Conti said.

A further concern raised by Dr. Conti is shrinking Medicaid coverage with the expiration of COVID-specific expanded Medicaid eligibility.

“Policy folks are closely watching the size of uninsured populations and also the growing importance of the high deductible and consumer-driven plans in which patients face high out-of-pocket first dollar coverage for care. With Medicaid rolls shrinking, we’ll see more people in low-premium, not well-insured plans. Americans’ exposure to higher costs for guideline-recommended care might grow, especially as more of them are independent contractors in the gig economy and not working for big corporations.”

“We worry that if and when they get a diagnosis of breast cancer, which is common among younger women, they are going to be faced with costs associated with their care that are going to have to be paid out-of-pocket – and it’s not going to be for the drug, it’s the other types of care. Doctors should know that the younger patient population that they are serving might be facing burdens associated with their care.”

Dr. Conti added, “Among women who are underinsured, there is a clear burden associated with cancer treatment. Reform efforts have largely focused on reducing out-of-pocket costs for seniors and have not focused much on guideline-consistent care for those under 65 who are working. Their burden can be quite onerous and cause financial harm for them and their families, resulting in worse health,” she continued, “Policy attention should go to unburdening people who have a serious diagnosis and who really have to be treated. There’s very good evidence that imposing additional out-of-pocket costs for guideline-consistent care causes people to make really hard decisions about paying rent versus paying for meds, about splitting pills and not doing all the things their physician is recommending, and about staying in jobs they don’t love but are locked into [because of health coverage].”

Dr. Conti concluded, “The good news is that, in breast cancer, the drugs work and are cheap. But the bad news is that there are many people who are underinsured and therefore, their care still has a high out-of-pocket burden. ACA radically changed working age people’s ability to qualify for insurance and be insured, but that didn’t mean that they are really well-covered when they become sick. They are still in peril over high out-of-pocket costs because of the proliferation of plans that are very skimpy. Women think they are insured until they get a diagnosis.”

Noting study limitations, Dr. Conti said that OOP costs cited are an underestimate, because many patients will also be treated for other comorbidities and complications related to treatment.

The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest. The study was funded by the American Cancer Society.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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