Far From Home

Patients who travel for treatment now have more places to stay.

When Mikio Yamashiro* needed a stem cell transplant, he wanted to be at the optimal place. “For any given condition, there is a best hospital. I believe very strongly that it’s worthwhile to find that hospital and to go there,” says Yamashiro, 38, whose acute lymphoblastic leukemia, diagnosed in January 2007, is now in remission.

“On top of that, there is the cost of living in a new place,” says Debbie Fraley, housing coordinator at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which is linked with Fred Hutchinson. “Our mission as staff is to try to help patients piece together any and all financial assistance they might qualify for.” Fraley says rent, transportation, food, deductibles, copayments, and other uncovered medical bills “can be daunting and devastating.”

Traveling for treatment posed financial challenges for Yamashiro, who had to cover living expenses in two locations—a New Jersey condo and a temporary apartment in Seattle—on disability payments, which were 60 percent of his prior earnings. Luckily, most of their lodging costs were covered by the hospital and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society through the nonprofit’s Patient Financial Aid program. 

It is becoming more common for patients to travel to other states, says Lakshmi Naik, clinical social work supervisor at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “When they are faced with the prospect of a life-threatening disease such as cancer, these patients now get into a survival mode,” she says. “Scared and desperate, they are willing to go to any lengths, even beg or borrow if needed, to find the best treatment or a cure for their disease.” 

Some cancer centers may have designated “hospitality houses” that offer discounted or free housing.

M.D. Anderson’s department of social work has negotiated rates with nearby lodging facilities, many of which offer a free shuttle to the hospital. For instance, a basic room renting for $70 per night may cost $50 plus tax with the discount. Because resources are very limited, M.D. Anderson patients must meet eligibility criteria based on disease, income, region of residence, and other factors.

Limited resources may pose hardships for patients being treated at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where there can be a waiting list for the Pete Gross House, a 70-unit fully furnished apartment building. Monthly rates for the Pete Gross House start at $43 a night, and treatment can necessitate stays of several weeks to several months.

To address the growing demand, the Pete Gross House will soon be joined by the SCCA House, an 80-room facility expected to open in fall 2009 that is designed to target the needs of those with shorter stays averaging about six weeks. The Alliance offers other housing options to patients, including a nearby residential building with furnished apartments where Yamashiro and his family stayed.

Among the few free places to stay across the nation are the 26 Hope Lodges that the American Cancer Society operates for patients and caregivers traveling for treatment. Last November, its newest and most expansive Hope Lodge opened near Penn Station in New York City.

In addition to 60 guest suites on 11 floors, the 77,000-square-foot building features communal kitchens, activity rooms, and free laundry facilities. Support services, such as special shared meals and yoga classes, are offered at no cost.

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