In our last post, we reviewed a daunting set of challenges to access and quality of care for Americans unfortunate enough to get cancer. In this post, we ask the obvious question whether, and to what extent, the new health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA), may help to alleviate these problems.

On the potentially positive side of the ledger, PPACA will extend insurance coverage by 32 million people by 2019 (including 16 million on Medicaid); will provide subsidies starting in 2014 to help many lower-income people afford coverage; will eliminate cost-sharing for many preventive services; will provide new funding to increase the capacity of community health centers; will put in place some limited reforms of the insurance industry, such as prohibiting exclusions based on pre-existing conditions and banning annual and lifetime limits; and will establish a new non-profit Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute charged with assessing the relative outcomes, effectiveness and appropriateness of different treatments.

All that might at first appear to remedy many of the system problems facing cancer patients, but this is unfortunately not the case, for these kinds of reasons.

1. At least 23 million people will still be uninsured in 2019, while tens of millions more will be underinsured. Exchanges don’t become available to help the uninsured gain coverage for four more years, and even then that coverage may well be unaffordable for many. The individual mandate, as the primary lever to expand coverage in 2014, faces an uncertain future over constitutional challenges; 71 percent of Missouri voters have already opposed that mandate in a referendum. (1) (Landers, P. Missouri voters oppose mandatory health insurance. Wall Street Journal on line. August 4, 2010) Medicaid expansion is delayed until 2014, and then will still be underfunded with many restrictions to care. As one example of recent cutbacks, the University Medical Center, as the only public oncology facility in Nevada, was shut down in 2009 leaving some 2,000 uninsured and underinsured cancer patients stranded. (2) (Pelley, S. The recession impact: Closing the clinic. 60 minutes: Bad economy leaves patients without health insurance in dire straits. April 5, 2009) As the economic downturn continues and the states make further draconian cuts, we can only expect Medicaid coverage to become even less adequate.

2. The rapidly rising costs of cancer care keep going up unabated. Under PPACA, the market still rules on prices.The costs of cancer care increase by about 20 percent a year. (3) (Newcomer, L. Oncology’s perfect storm: The next decade. Am J Manag Care 11 (no. 17, Sup), S507, December 2005) Chemotherapy drugs lead the charge, and drug makers can set their prices with little restraint. As just one example, Ovation Pharmaceuticals raised the prices of four of its drugs by up to 3,436 percent (not a typo!) in 2006, including Cosmegen, its drug for Wilm’s tumor, a cancer of the kidney in children. (4) (Appleby, J. Drug prices up 100% — or higher. USA Today: August 8-10, 2008) By 2007, three approved targeted drugs for cancer were costing about $100,000 a year. (5) (McKoy, JM, Fitzner, KA, Dewards, BJ et al. Cost considerations in the management of cancer in the older patient. Oncology 21 (7): 8522, 2007) Other cancer treatments are also right up there. A course of proton beam therapy for prostate cancer (already over-utilized beyond indications) costs about $50,000. (6) (Pollack, A. Hospitals chase a nuclear tool to fight cancer. New York Times, December 27, 2007)

3. Health insurance and cancer care have become increasingly unaffordable for many patients and families. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average premium for a family of four was $13,375 in 2009. (7) (Fritze, J. Average family health insurance policy: $13, 375, up 5%. USA Today, September 16, 2009) Translating that to affordability terms, the Commonwealth Fund has developed criteria marking when payments become unaffordable, as measured against other essential costs of living—above 10 percent is considered a financial hardship. (8) (Schoen, C, Doty, M, Collins, SR, Holmgren, AL. Commonwealth Fund. Insured but not protected: How many adults are underinsured, the experiences of adults with inadequate coverage mirror those of their uninsured peers, especially among the chronically ill. Health Affairs Web Exclusive, June 14, 2005) That means that an annual household income of $130,000 a year would be required to cover health insurance without financial hardship, quite aside from the costs of health care themselves if family members get sick! And the cost of health insurance is going up by 10 to 13 percent in 2010, depending on type of plan. (9) (Moeller, P. Double-digit medical expense trend to continue. U. S. News & World Report, September 3, 2009) The PPACA will not help this problem. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that annual family insurance premiums in 2016 will cost more than $20,000, not including deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs, despite implementation of the new health care “reform” law. (10) (Congressional Budget Office. An Analysis of Health Insurance Premiums Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. November 30, 2009) The actual costs of health care are an even bigger burden for patients and families than insurance, especially for cancer care. Even for those with insurance, out-of-pocket expenditures keep going up as more cost-sharing is added through deductibles, co-payments and coinsurance. As the costs of chemotherapy drugs continue skyward, insurers typically require enrollees to pay coinsurance of 20 to 33 percent toward the cost of these drugs. If uninsured, the costs are even higher since hospitals typically charge them rates that are almost 2.5 those charged to insurers. (11) (Anderson, GF. From ‘soak the rich’ to ‘soak the poor’: recent trends in hospital pricing. Health Aff (Millwood) 26: 780-89, 2007) Thomson Reuters reported in 2008 that one in four patients with advanced cancer with annual incomes less than $40,000 were refusing recommended treatment because of cost. (12) (Szabo, L. Study: Many cancer patients foregoing care because of cost. USA Today, October 13, 2008) And the recession of the last two years now finds an increasing number of patients reducing or stopping their life-extending chemotherapy drugs in hopes of their precious supplies lasting longer, but instead resulting in rapid regrowth of their cancers. (13) (Gardner, A. Recession causing cancer patients to quit life-extending drugs. Bloomberg BusinessWeek, August 4, 2010)

4. The PPACA will end up reducing choice of coverage for many Americans. The Exchanges will not be open for business until 2014, and then only for the uninsured and some small businesses. Affordability of adequate coverage through Exchanges remains open to question. And for those already insured, the trend is toward more restricted choice. The country’s biggest health insurers are now testing plans with tightly controlled networks of providers that will often force the insured to change physicians or pay much higher costs for the privilege of keeping their own doctors. (13) (Abelson, R. Insurers push plans that limit choice of doctor. New York Times, July 27 2010)

5. Insurance “reforms” won’t prevent insurers from gaming the new system, maximizing their own profits as their underinsurance products become ever less adequate. Insurers still have many ways to get around some of the regulations put in place by PPACA. For starters, existing insurance plans were grandfathered in without having to implement such requirements as stopping the use of pre-existing conditions to deny coverage. Annual and lifetime caps won’t be implemented until 2014; even then existing plans are permanently exempted from both requirements. (14) (Andrews, M. Caps on coverage. A big point of conflict. New York Times, January 27, 2010: A:15) As the rules get written by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), insurers are lobbying hard for regulations least restrictive to their business practices, such as counting many administrative costs as direct patient care (e.g. calculations of medical loss ratios (MLRs), credentialing of physicians, quality assurance initiatives). They have wide latitude to set their premium rates despite the concerns of regulators. Plans can still deny coverage or even cancel policies. They have already forced the government to backpedal on the requirement that they offer coverage to children up to 26 years of age on their parents’ policies—insurers are now permitted to set limited signup periods for such coverage, such as just one month a year. (15) (Associated Press. Health insurers win concession on kids’ coverage. July 29, 2010) In Florida, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Aetna and Golden Rule (a subsidiary of UnitedHealth) have notified the insurance commissioner that they will stop issuing individual policies for children. (16) (Alonzo-Zaldivar, R. Some insurers stop writing new coverage for kids. Philly.com, July 27, 2010)

One of the most critical rule-setting matters before HHS is the definition of minimal benefits, still pending. Many insurers now have fine-print restrictions in their policies that cancer patients find too late, such as steep surcharges for top-tier hospitals and higher coinsurance for Tier 4 chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy. (17) (Court, J. Insurance: you pay, they bait and switch. Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2002) More than one-half of enrollees in private Medicare plans have no annual limits on their out-of-pocket costs, and many of these plans exclude coverage for chemotherapy. (18) (Medicare Rights Center. Clean house. Asclepios 8 (10), March 6, 2008)

6. The quality of cancer care will still suffer on two counts—the under-use of necessary care and the over-use of some services of marginal value that at times are even harmful. Although the PPACA may alleviate some of the access barriers for some cancer patients at least four years down the road, the main cost and affordability barriers will continue with little restraint so that many cancer patients will under-use essential care. Since most reimbursement policies are not significantly altered and perverse incentives for physicians and hospitals to provide more services will continue, over-utilization of services of marginal value will remain a system problem. One common example makes the point. Radical prostatectomy is still performed in 60 percent of American men less than 75 years of age, often resulting in bowel, urinary or sexual dysfunction; many of these men did not need surgery in the first place. (19) (Bill-Axelson, A, Holmberg, L, Ruutu, M et al. Radical prostatectomy versus watchful waiting in early prostate cancer: The Scandinavian Prostate Cancer Group-4 randomized trial. J Natl Cancer Inst 100 (16), 2008) (20) (Wilt, TJ. SPCG-4: A needed START to PIVOTAL Data to Promote and Protect Evidence-Based Cancer Care. J Natl Cancer Inst 100 (16): 1123-5, 2008) The new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute will not be operational until near the end of this decade, and then will not be empowered to set coverage and reimbursement policies based on clinical efficacy and cost-effectiveness.

So, back to our original question, in view of the above, we have to conclude that the new health care law, the PPACA, may make some marginal gains in a few areas, but will not remedy access and quality problems in cancer care, and will leave many patients and families in even more desperate straits than they are now. In essence—too little and too late. More fundamental reform will be required to redress the excesses of our market-based system, as we will consider in our next posts.

Adapted in part, with permission of the publisher, Common Courage Press, from The Cancer Generation: Baby Boomers Facing a Perfect Storm (2009) and Hijacked: The Road to Single Payer in the Aftermath of Stolen Health Care Reform (2010).