How to stay on top of your finances during cancer treatment

How to stay on top of your finances during cancer treatment

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you may not only be worried about treatment, but also how you’ll pay for it. 

“Outside of treatment, financial stress is one of the biggest challenges patients reference,” says Mark Flanagan, LCSW, MPH, MA, a Piedmont outpatient oncology social worker. “It’s difficult to deal with these financial issues while trying to wrap your head around what it means to have cancer.”

He says the greatest financial obstacles people face during cancer treatment include:

  • How to pay for treatment

  • Reduced income

  • How to pay for non-medical expenses

Keep reading for Flanagan’s advice on navigating these three areas.

How to pay for cancer treatment if you don’t have insurance

If you don’t have health insurance, the first thing Flanagan says you should do is contact your social worker or Piedmont’s Patient Financial Services line (855-788-1212) to go through the financial assistance process. If you don’t have a social worker, ask your oncologist or nurse to connect you with the right resource.

“Unless you’re able to pay for treatment out-of-pocket, you won’t be able to proceed with treatment until you figure out how to pay for it, whether that’s charity care, a tax write-off or self-pay,” he adds.

If you’re a self-pay patient, you may be eligible for a significant discount on services.

Also, if your doctor is part of a private physician group, contact their administrative staff to learn about payment options.

How to pay for cancer treatment if you have insurance

If you have health insurance but can’t afford your copays or deductible, you can still apply for hardship assistance. Flanagan recommends calling Piedmont’s Patient Financial Services line or consulting with your social worker.

You should also contact your insurance company.

“Let them know your diagnosis and that you’ll likely have an increase in medical claims,” he says. “Ask if they have a complex case manager who can help you navigate the insurance side of things.”

Your social worker may have additional resources, like copay assistance foundations, grants and other means to help you pay for treatment and other bills.

How to find a sustainable income during cancer treatment

Many people undergoing cancer treatment need to stop working or reduce their hours so they can go to appointments, says Flanagan. Your social worker’s goal is to help you build a sustainable income for the duration of treatment.

Flanagan says, generally speaking, you’ll apply for:

  • PTO. Request paid time off (PTO) from your employer first.

  • FMLA. Once you’ve used up your PTO, you can request Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protection. FMLA is a federal law that allows you up to 12 weeks of leave that’s unpaid but preserves your job.

  • Short-term disability. For many people undergoing cancer treatment, FMLA isn’t long enough. If that’s the case, check with your employer to see if you signed up for short-term disability. Short-term disability will generally pay some percentage of your income, such as 60 to 90%. Most short-term disability is through private insurance agencies, so they’ll have their own stipulations and rules about how to apply, he adds.

  • Long-term disability: After you’ve exhausted these options, you can request long-term disability from your employer. This can last from a few months to a year. At some point, your employer will require you to apply for Social Security disability benefits.

“Once you’ve secured a reliable income, you’ll want to look for other resources, like short-term national or disease-specific grants,” says Flanagan. “Your social worker can help you find the right grants for your circumstances and diagnosis.”

How to manage your bills during cancer treatment

In addition to medical bills, you may also have an increase in costs for transportation, travel and medical supplies that aren’t covered by insurance. You’ll also have to budget for your regular expenses, like your rent or mortgage, gas, electric, phone and water bills.

“Even though medical bills can be expensive, that’s not usually what hurts people severely,” says Flanagan. “Instead, it’s the recurring bills—like your mortgage, car payment, car insurance and electric— that you’re unable to pay. It can be difficult if you don’t have significant savings.”

He recommends that you:

  • Build a budget: Your social worker can help you build a basic budget so you know how much income you’re bringing in each month and what your monthly obligations are. “A budget can be a very powerful tool for reducing the stress around uncertainty,” says Flanagan. “You have to have a clear picture of what you’re working with so you can understand the proper solution to that issue.” 

  • Organize your medical bills: “Organization is key with your medical bills. It can be stressful to see several thousand dollars in bills, but you may not have to pay that amount right now,” says Flanagan. “However, you do need to communicate with the billing offices. You can’t do that if you’re throwing your bills in a shoebox.” He recommends keeping everything organized in a folder or Excel spreadsheet.

  • Ask for support: For example, you can contact your mortgage company to see if they can put a temporary moratorium on your mortgage bill. Grants and support from family members can also help.

Finally, don’t underestimate the impact cancer treatment and financial concerns can have on your mental health and well-being. It’s essential to reach out to a social worker who can help you navigate financial challenges.

“You don’t have to do this alone,” says Flanagan.

Learn more about support during the cancer journey.

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