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Sending Out an S.O.S.

Cancer patients can get financial help from a sometimes bewildering variety of sources.

BY Katy Human
PUBLISHED December 21, 2011

Social workers. Patient navigators. Drug manufacturers. Billing offices. Nonprofits. Family and friends. Cancer patients can get financial help from a sometimes bewildering variety of sources. “Multiple resources are available, but none is perfect,” says Duke Cancer Institute oncologist Yousuf Zafar, MD.

He and other experts recommend discussing your financial concerns with your medical team. Healthcare providers often know where other patients have found help, including from their own billing offices and patient advocacy organizations, and may be able to help you cut through the clutter.

Then, begin turning to other sources. If you have access to the Internet, search online.

Most important, expect some disappointment and be ready to start again. Many organizations have specific rules for who they can help—and when. One might help only patients who earn less than 200 percent of federal poverty level (currently $22,354 for a family of four, so help would be available to families earning about $44,700). Another might be exclusively for insured patients who are struggling to cover co-payments.

And know you’re not alone. Many patients find it difficult, emotionally, to ask for financial help or even let it be known that they’re struggling.

“We know the need out there is huge right now,” says Mary Sundeen, president of the HealthWell Foundation, which helps insured patients living with chronic or life-altering illnesses pay their share of prescription drug co-payments and health insurance premiums.

“We’ve gone from about 18,000 calls a month to close to 30,000 between January and August,” she says. Sundeen believes the surge is due to a combination of poor economic conditions and the loss of employer-sponsored insurance for many who have lost jobs.

Sundeen’s most important practical tip to patients: Keep your receipts. “Start with a shoebox on the dining room table and put everything into it,” she says. “It will begin raining paperwork. Move to a shopping bag if you need to and keep every scrap.”

Marianne Morgan, 69, who lives in Tarpon Springs, Fla., never thought she’d be spending so much time at her desk, filling out forms for financial assistance and sorting through receipts. She thrived financially for most of her adult life, as a university librarian and then a business owner.

“I used to donate to the American Cancer Society,” Morgan says, ruefully. “Now I ask them for help.”

She also sought—and received—assistance from HealthWell.

“At one point, I went to pick up a prescription and it was more than $400,” Morgan says. “I called my oncologist and said, ‘OK, shall I pay for this pill or shall I eat?’”

When she hit the “doughnut hole” of her Medicare policy—an annual gap in coverage during which many patients must pay the entire cost of prescription drugs—the organization helped Morgan pay for her medicine. “HealthWell meant I didn’t have to make that choice."

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