Health Insurance: Be Proactive!

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There is no denying that cancer can, and does, place a heavy financial burden on patients and their families — and it's a burden that doesn't necessarily end when treatment is completed. Cancer survivors, too, are often faced with significant financial problems, especially problems that are related to running out of insurance benefits or being unable to find affordable insurance due to their pre-existing condition.

These insurance issues are not automatically insurmountable, however.

Sandi Johnson, LICSW, oncology social work supervisor at the Swedish Cancer Institute (SCI), says that survivors who are living with cancer as a chronic condition do have some insurance options, "though you want to be proactive and not wait until you are in a crisis situation to reach out."

A relatively common situation facing many longtime survivors, says Johnson, is reaching the lifetime benefit on their current policy. Though at what point this will happen varies from policy to policy, and from insurance company to insurance company, it does occur — and it is occurring with increasing frequency.

"Do not wait until you are near to maxing out your lifetime benefits to start looking for another plan," says Johnson. "Be careful not to put your head in the sand.

"You need to meet with a social worker or with an insurance broker and look at what's available — and do it before there is a problem."

Possible Insurance Options

Health insurance options that may be available to you, depending on your particular situation, include:

  • The Washington State Health Insurance Pool — This plan offers health insurance to residents of Washington state who have been denied coverage due to medical reasons. Premiums can be expensive, unfortunately, but it may be worth exploring if you're having problems getting insurance elsewhere. For information, go to or call (800) 877-5187.
  • Your spouse's health insurance policy — If you're close to reaching the maximum lifetime benefit on your policy, you may be able to start fresh by switching to your spouse's policy. You'll need to do this during his or her Open Enrollment period, though, so keep that timing in mind as you monitor bills. 
  • Medicare and Social Security Disability — People eligible for Social Security disability benefits, such as those with advanced cancers, will also qualify for Medicare benefits after a two-year waiting period. This is the case even if you're younger than standard Medicare age.
  • For all questions relating to Medicare, Statewide Health Insurance Benefit Advisors (SHIBA) are available through a 24-hour, toll-free hotline. They can provide assistance in sorting through Medicare benefits, including supplemental plans and Part D plans. Call (800) 562-6900. You can also go to  the SHIBA Web site.
  • Medicaid — For some patients, Medicaid may be an option. In Washington state, Medicaid programs are based on having a disability, limited income, and resources under $2,000. For more information, call 800-562-3022 or visit

"There are more options than most people might think," says Johnson. But again, thinking about insurance issues proactively, before a crisis occurs, is extremely important.

Cancer and Finances 101

To help cancer survivors explore their financial options, Johnson teaches Cancer and Finances 101, a free three-session class that is held three times a year. The class is also for patients still in treatment.

"We take a look at what the different members of the class need — what their financial concerns are — and we work around those needs."

The next session of Cancer and Finances 101 will be held on August 5, 12 and 19 at the Swedish Cancer Institute on Swedish's First Hill campus. Lunch is included. For more information, or to register, call (206) 386-3000.