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Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Meeting Utility Bills & Feeding the Family during Cancer

by Rodney Warner, ESQ, and Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN

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Cold weather, a slowing economy, and cancer. The first two come and go; the last is a constant. In this slow economy, more and more folks are losing their jobs and facing economic hardship. Cold weather and cancer treatment may lead to additional financial burdens. If there are limited resources, families may have to choose between heating, eating, and medicating.

Many people with cancer, currently working and with accommodations, may find themselves without a job. In prosperous times, granting special accommodations, such as reduced work schedules or changed duties, might not be a big deal for an employer. But in the face of significant revenue reductions, those accommodations might seem like a luxury they can no longer afford.

If a person can’t afford all of his or her expenses, medication might not be a priority. The New York Times has reported that in the third quarter of 2008, nationwide prescription sales decreased compared to the previous eight months. Though it was only a one percent decrease, this is the first quarterly drop in more than 10 years. This could be the result of budget tightening, higher co-pays, and/or loss of prescription coverage. Skipping medications can make a condition worse, and more expensive to treat in the long run.

If a person can’t afford all of his or her expenses, medication might not be a priority.

How can people get help with these expenses? Help is out there, but it may take some legwork and patience to find it. If you have access to a social worker at your cancer center, ask to meet with him or her. These individuals are knowledgeable about local agencies that help with utilities, food, and other expenses. They may also be able to find help with medication expenses. Don’t assume your income will prevent you from getting help; it can’t hurt to ask when you are in need.

The government runs a program called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low income families meet home energy bills. Contact your energy provider(s), as many have assistance programs. Do an Internet search for “finding help with utility bills (insert your state)”. Look for agency websites using a .gov (government entity) or .org (non-profit entity) address. Use caution before applying for anything online, read any fine print, and look for a phone number to call and ask questions. Unfortunately, there are many businesses out there looking to make money off of your misfortune, so use good judgment, do your homework, and if it seems too good to be true, it very well may be.

Eating is another basic need that often suffers during difficult economic times. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service has information about nutrition assistance. World Hunger Year is an organization dedicated to ending hunger. Their website, www.worldhungeryear.org, offers links to numerous food banks and nutrition programs and a tool to search in your area. Your local Chamber of Commerce may also have a listing of organizations in your area that can help.

Medication costs can be overwhelming after a cancer diagnosis. If you are having trouble paying for medications, make sure your healthcare team knows. They may be able to offer some generic substitutes that are less expensive or know of programs that can help. Perhaps you have prescription coverage, but the co-pays are adding up. Some plans offer mail-in prescription service, providing three months supply for the cost of one. Call your plan provider and ask for tips on how to save on copays. The can help you find programs that help with medication expenses. The Patient Advocate Foundation offers help and resources for people with cancer facing financial hardships.

Talk to your nurse or a social worker in your cancer center for more ideas. Most importantly, make sure they are aware of the economic hardship the cost of medications is causing.

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Reprinted with permission from OncoLink, www.oncolink.org, copyright © 2009, Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2009.