Reducing Financial Toxicity with Philanthropic Financial Aid
Patricia Falconer, MBA, is the Strategic Advisor at Atlas Health and President at Health Options LLC. Atlas Health helps hospitals and health systems save and improve lives by ensuring every patient can access and afford care they deserve.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer is a life-changing experience. Treatment and recovery processes can be mentally, physically and emotionally taxing for many patients. As the costs of care continue to rise, these issues are compounded by an unintended side effect. Women are increasingly choosing to delay screening mammography and treatment because of the financial distress that often comes with a breast cancer diagnosis: expensive diagnostic tests, genetic testing, surgery, radiation therapy, systemic therapy and clinical trials. The added stress and problems patients experience related to the costs of care are defined as financial toxicity.
Let’s take a closer look at financial toxicity, the financial burdens of breast cancer and how hospitals and health systems can help their patients overcome this challenge.
Financial Toxicity Explained
Financial toxicity has become a buzzword in the medical community. So, what is it? Financial toxicity encompasses the various hardships patients and families experience regarding treatment and care costs.
In the United States, women receiving breast cancer treatment had a higher mortality risk when they experienced financial distress. Younger, racial or ethnic minority and unmarried women with breast cancer are at the highest risk for financial hardships. There is a critical need to reduce financial hardship to ensure that breast cancer survivors do not delay or forgo essential care because they cannot afford it.
Breast cancer patients are often more worried about the financial consequences of cancer than the short- or long-term effects of treatments. The financial burden of breast cancer can severely interfere with a patient’s course of treatment and negatively impact their health. In a 2020 study of women with breast cancer, most women use personal funds to pay out-of-pocket costs. One in four women had to borrow from family or friends, left some medical bills unpaid, increased credit card debt and/or postponed paying bills. Self-reported debt varied by race and ethnicity, with 59% of Black, 34% of Latina, 29% of Asian and 27% of White women reporting treatment-related debt.
Since 2016, the number of U.S. workers covered by high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) has increased by more than 50%. 58% of covered workers have high-deductible plans that require spending of $1,000 to over $8,000 per person for most non-preventative care, including services for cancer diagnosis and treatment. Women who switched to high-deductible insurance plans experienced delays in diagnostic breast imaging, breast biopsy, early-stage breast cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy initiation (learn more).
Financial toxicity doesn’t only pertain to patients’ out-of-pocket costs. Cancer itself often impedes a patient’s ability to work, support themselves and their families, maintain healthcare insurance and afford treatment. Breast cancer experiences do affect work capabilities and career decisions. In the above 2020 study, almost half of young women, age 18-39, diagnosed with breast cancer experienced financial hardship even if they were successful in maintaining their employment and health insurance. 55% of women were able to take paid time off during their cancer treatment but 47% had to take unpaid time off. Many women reported that their cancer diagnosis affected their job performance and 10% reported that they had quit or lost their jobs.
How Hospitals and Health Systems Can Help Mitigate Financial Toxicity
Patient assistance programs provide coverage for immediate healthcare costs, such as prescriptions and copays, while social support programs can fulfill health-related social needs, such as rent, food and transportation. To reduce financial toxicity for patients and families, many hospitals and health systems enroll vulnerable patients in government programs like Medicaid and provide charity care. Organizations also employ patient advocates who help patients navigate the administrative elements of treatment and recovery. Patient advocates may direct patients in need to philanthropic aid programs that reduce financial distress and allow patients and families to focus on healing. Reducing financial distress through these types of interventions can improve several clinically-relevant outcomes such as quality of life, symptom management, compliance and survival. However, without the right tools to manage patient assistance and social support programs effectively, many patients will not get the help they need.
Overcome Barriers to Connect Patients with Philanthropic Aid
There are over 20,000 patient assistance and social support programs offering over $30B in funds every year. Atlas Health partners with health systems, hospitals and providers to reduce patients’ financial toxicity with an easy-to-use solution to connect with this aid. Our solution provides visibility into which patients need support and the specific programs that will help. A constantly updated, real-time database is critical as patient assistance program eligibility, enrollment and reimbursement processes vary dramatically, and funding availability fluctuates frequently. Many organizations attempt to navigate these programs manually and lack efficient operational logistics to coordinate productive and compliant programs. We simplify these challenges with digital data collection, streamlined applications, secure patient text messaging and workflow automation for smooth enrollment, reimbursement and re-enrollment processes. The result is more patients can afford their medical bills and stay on their course of treatment towards improved health outcomes – as KLAS Research recently recognized in ranking Atlas as one of the leading top 20 emerging technology solutions.
While we can’t eliminate the systemic causes of financial toxicity, we can provide the solution needed to advance health equity and remove barriers to care. Contact Atlas Health today to learn more about how they can help your patients and organization.