ATLANTA – The cost of treating cancer in the United States nearly doubled over the past two decades, but expensive cancer drugs may not be the main reason, according to a new study.
The study confounds conventional wisdom in several respects. The soaring price of new cancer treatments has received widespread attention, but the researchers conclude that rising costs were mainly driven by the growing number of patients.
The study also finds cancer accounts for only 5 percent of total U.S. medical costs, and that has not changed in the last few decades.
“I will say I’m a bit surprised,” said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society, who said he would have expected the proportion of cancer costs to rise.
Figures in the study are reported in 2007 dollars. It found that cancer treatment costs rose from nearly $25 billion in 1987 to more than $48 billion by the end of 2005.
The rise is mainly due to an increase over 20 years in how many cancer patients there are, said the study’s lead author, Florence Tangka of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The researchers used data from national telephone surveys done in 1987 and from 2001 through 2005, which gathered information on medical conditions as well as who paid the bills. More than 164,000 people were surveyed.
The study did not offer precise estimates of how the number of people treated for cancer changed from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. But it showed dramatic increases in the number of cancer cases covered by the government’s Medicare and Medicaid programs. Medicare, which covers the elderly and disabled, has consistently covered about a third of the nation’s cancer costs. Medicaid accounts for only 3 percent.
The study is being published in Cancer, a medical journal of the American Cancer Society.
The researchers also foundthe proportion of cancer costs paid by private insurance rose from 42 to 50 percent, while the proportion of costs paid out of pocket by patients – including copayments and deductibles – dropped from 17 percent to 8 percent.
The study did not add in the cost of diagnostic tests and scans, which are cost drivers. And the data does not include the last five years, which saw some extremely pricey cancer drugs come on the market.