Waiting For Cancer: Americans Are Waiting For Medicare To Seek Help

Cancer doesn’t know if you have insurance. Today, roughly 31 million Americans lack access to healthcare because they are uninsured. That’s costing lives.

As big of a number as 31 million is, it doesn’t tell the whole story. A full 40 million Americans are underinsured, which means how and when they seek care, and the quality of care they receive, it isn’t adequate.

That lack of access changes how people view their own health. Even when it comes to serious, life-saving screenings, those who face extreme financial difficulty with every trip to the doctor’s office are waiting it out. There’s new evidence in the form of a Stanford study that some of the highest-risk individuals are doing just that- nothing -when it comes to cancer.

The background of the study lays in anecdotal observation. Doctors noticed that cancer diagnoses seemed to be much more common in 65-year-olds. Not 64, and not 66, but exactly 65; why? Just as cancer doesn’t know if you have insurance, it doesn’t have a grasp of birthdays, either. There’s no medical reason for a specific year of age to have any higher likelihood of cancer than the year immediately before or after.

Except, doctors found, for the reality of the American healthcare system. Most Americans qualify for Medicare at the age of 65. And it’s a shocking rate at which cancer rates and treatments jump at that year of life; for lung cancer surgeries, 65-year-olds see double the rate as compared to 64-year-olds.

The study focused on patient records from 2004–2016 and narrowed down their research to three prevalent cancer types, namely, breast, colon, and prostate cancer. According to the data, cancer diagnoses increase 3–4% per year between the ages of 61 and 64, but double at the age of 65. For colon cancer, it’s even more pronounced, with a 1–2% increase between the ages of 61 and 64 before jumping to 15% at the age of 65.

As frustrating as this study might be, there is a silver lining. Because these patients have access to care, they have much better outcomes than younger individuals who waited too long for a diagnosis. According to the study, these same patients facing a two-fold rate of diagnosis were also more likely to undergo treatment, including surgery, and saw a lower mortality rate as a result. In a nutshell, it’s as simple as it is obvious; when people have access to care and treatment, they live. When they don’t, they are much more likely to die.

The study concluded that the high rate of uninsured Americans between the ages of 60 and 65 is likely tied to losing employer-funded insurance upon retirement. Tying health care to employment is an issue that faces Americans of all ages and constantly presents a challenge in accessing care through every stage of life. That’s perhaps more pronounced in a time with record unemployment due to the pandemic.

Cancer prevention, not to mention a better quality of life, shouldn’t be tied to a job, nor should any American need to wait to seek care for a serious illness based on a coverage timeline. We need to do more to include more Americans in the healthcare system, and that may mean pushing back on the premiums and requirements of the current insurance environment. Expanding subsidies for current government-sponsored programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Healthcare.gov (yep, Obamacare) can slowly increase the number of American families who can affordably access the healthcare system.

For more on the Stanford study, head here.

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