Medicare policy puts low-income Americans at increased risk for colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer is the second highest cause of cancer death in the United States, expected to claim the lives of an estimated 49,190 people in 2016. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) aimed to increase access to CRC screening by not holding patients responsible for all costs of the procedure, yet current Medicare insurance beneficiaries lacking supplemental insurance may not be able to afford colon cancer screening and treatment. This policy disproportionally puts low-income Americans at risk and adds unnecessary strains on overall health care costs, according to a commentary in the May issue of the journal Gastroenterology.

"Study after study shows that screening saves lives," said Chyke A. Doubeni, MD, MPH, chair and the Presidential Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and lead author of the commentary. "Yet many of those in the group most affected by this deadly disease are unable to afford the screening they critically need. We must renew efforts to ensure equitable access to and use of disease prevention, detection, and treatment services for colorectal cancer."

There are currently an estimated 55.5 million Medicare beneficiaries in the U.S. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 14 percent lacked supplemental coverage. Until recently, colon cancer screening has been viewed as a one-time activity, while in practice, screening is a series of clinical activities to identify and test patients and perform diagnostic confirmation when necessary. This series of tests and steps include a diagnostic workup, which can include a biopsy to obtain a tissue sample or polypectomy, in which polyps are removed to prevent them from becoming cancerous.

The ACA did not address provisions in section 1834 (d) (3) (D) of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, the authors note, thereby prohibiting Medicare from waiving the beneficiary's share of coverage for screening costs when a diagnostic procedure is needed.

"Congress looks at screening the wrong way," Doubeni says. "Now when you do a test, find a polyp, lesion, or positive result, the test is classified as a diagnostic with costs that can inhibit low-income patients without co-insurance from acting on it."

These restrictions are in place at a time when longstanding disparities remain in mortality from colon cancer for Medicare beneficiaries and too few people in the United States are being screened.

Among Medicare beneficiaries, those from low-income backgrounds have half the rate of screening of high-income groups, and a disproportionally high percentage of Medicare beneficiaries from low-income backgrounds lack the supplemental insurance needed to cover treatment after a positive screening. Previous research found that 63 percent of colon cancer deaths in 2010 could have been prevented if those patients had been screened. Additionally, increasing screening from 58 percent in 2013 to 80 percent by 2018 in the U.S. is estimated to lower disease incidence by 17 percent and lives lost to colon cancer by 19 percent.

Current insurance policies increase unnecessary health care expenditures, the authors suggest, noting that Medicare spent $2 billion on approximately 3.8 million colonoscopies in 2013, but spent $7.3 billion in 2010 on CRC treatment.


University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine


  1. dennis byron dennis byron United States says:

    It would not be surprising that low income people on Medicare would be less likely to get screenings of any type including colonoscopies. But the possibility that this is because of lack of supplemental insurance is incorrect as are almost all the statistics in this UPenn-based article concerning Medicare basic and supplemental insurance coverage.

    Most important, most low income people on Medicare are dual eligible for Medicaid and for them, everything -- screenings and treatments -- are covered. People who are just above the level of income that would give them full Medicaid are eligible for free Medicare Part B and most of those people then use that saving to get supplemental insurance. And a disproportionately large percentage of low income people on Medicare not eligible for Medicaid sign up for zero-premium Part C Medicare health plans. These Part C health plans are networked and require typical co-pays. But the co-pays are similar to the co-pays paid by almost everyone not on Medicare who has employer sponsored insurance (ESI) or Obamacare.

    At the other end of the scale, when the article says 14% of people on Medicare do not have supplemental insurance, that statistic is not adjusted for the fact that most of that group is still working (or a spouse is still working) and that they are covered by ESI.

    The last paragraph makes no sense.

    It is quite disturbing when a group from a place like Penn studies Medicare but lacks basici understanding of who Medicare works

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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