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We May Be More Afraid of Paying for Cancer Than Having It

Here's a quick quiz. When having a heart attack, do you grab a) your chest, b) your phone, or c) your wallet.
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A new white paper commissioned by insurance company Sun Life Financial argues that fear of medical care’s cost can outweigh concern about the malady itself—up to and including death. In a survey of more than 4,000 full-time workers in the U.S. last August, the company reports, “Many workers feared the financial impact of a critical illness even more than dying from one.”

While it’s worth remembering Sun Life’s business—selling insurance, including this new thing called critical illness insurance—in reviewing its report, the results certainly pass the sniff test. There is a palpable fear about the cost of critical care and its cousin, long-term care, in the U.S. (and beyond). The medical industry itself uses words like "titanic" to describe the cost. Most health insurance, as Sun Life is quick to note, only goes so far toward covering what can quickly become astronomic costs, both financial and mental, for the patient and their network. And this just for the working population, which is healthier and younger. Spare a regret for those chronically critically ill, another $20 billion a year Pandora’s box, or for what’s been termed "the burden of survivorship."

Sun Life asked what particular critical illness was scariest, and cancer was the hands down winner, cited by 56 percent of women and 42 percent of men.

According to the Sun Life survey, conducted by Kelton Research, when asked their greatest concern when facing a critical illness, 47 percent cited finances, followed by dying at 29 percent and “emotional burden” by 22 percent.

Cost was especially spooky to older workers, presumably more acquainted both with mortality and responsibility. In a handy graphic demonstrating this age-related ratcheting, among workers 40 to 50 those earning less than $50,000 a year were twice as concerned with finances as with dying, single workers earning less than $50,000 and single parents with a household income of less than $100,000 were three times as concerned, and single women earning less than $50,000 were four times as concerned.

Younger workers, those between age 22 and 39, were less worried overall, but again, single parents and single women (I suspect there’s a lot of overlap in those categories) were most concerned with the cost of care.

Sun Life asked what particular critical illness was scariest, and cancer was the hands down winner, cited by 56 percent of women and 42 percent of men. Heart attacks came second, cited by more men (37 percent) than women (25 percent), followed by stroke. Those fears pretty much track the claims for critical care insurance monitored by another insurance company, Gen Re Life Corporation: 61 percent were for cancer, 18 percent stroke, and 11 percent heart attacks. (Kidney failure and coronary artery bypass surgery join these three on similar lists.)

The point here isn’t to sell a new kind of insurance (even if it might be needed); Sun Life and its peers can do that on their own. Having seen my mom battle Alzheimer's before she was finished off by lung cancer, for instance, I'm personally interested in how to pay for long-term care. But my concern here is to once again point out the paralyzing influence that cost has on care.