ATLANTA - Uninsured cancer patients are nearly twice as likely to die within five years as those with private coverage, according to the first national study of its kind and one that sheds light on troubling healthcare obstacles.
People without health insurance are less likely to get recommended cancer screening tests, the study also found, confirming earlier research. And when these patients finally do get diagnosed, their cancer is likely to have spread.
The research by scientists with the American Cancer Society offers important context for the national discussion about healthcare, analysts said.
The new research is being published in Cancer, the cancer society's medical journal. In an accompanying editorial, the society's president repeated the organization's call for action to fix holes in the healthcare safety net.
"The truth is that our national reluctance to face these facts is condemning thousands of people to die from cancer each year," Dr. Elmer Huerta wrote.
Hard numbers linking insurance status and cancer deaths are scarce, in part because death certificates don't say whether those who died were insured.
An Associated Press estimate - based on hospital cancer deaths in 2005 gathered by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality information and other data - suggests that at least 20,000 of the nation's 560,000 annual cancer deaths are uninsured when they die.
That's about 4 percent of the total cancer death toll. One reason is that most fatal cancers occur in people 65 or older - an age group covered by the federal Medicare program.
Some are enrolled in Medicaid or other programs after diagnosis, when the condition worsens and their finances erode. But such 11th-hour coverage can be too late; early detection is the key to catching many cancers before they've grown beyond control, analysts said.