A Twin Cities nonprofit is hoping that financial management can address one of the sad realities of modern cancer care — that the latest treatments are savings lives, but leaving survivors without money to live.
Eligible cancer patients will be paired with certified financial planners and navigators as part of a two-year test project by Angel Foundation, a Mendota Heights-based charity that already supports cancer patients with costs of food and other basic needs, and with counseling and resources to continue to be effective parents amid treatment.
Some cancer patients and their families ignore finances during treatment, while others make inadvisable decisions such as liquidating retirement accounts or selling valuable assets, said David Becker, the foundation's chief executive.
"The financial adviser … can really help them see all of their options, and then make informed decisions, at a time when their heads are spinning," he said.
The latest CAR-T therapy, which harvests and programs patients' own immune cells to attack blood cancers such as leukemia, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But costs are increasing for standard therapies as well.
A 2018 report in the American Journal of Medicine showed that 42% of cancer survivors who were 50 or older had run out of savings and assets within two years of their cancer diagnoses.
Bloomington-based HealthPartners has been studying the problem as well as part of a consortium of 437 U.S. cancer centers. They recruited 370 patients with advanced colon cancers to document their finances amid treatment. They selected colon cancer because survival rates are improving, and costs are increasing.
"Some of the treatments are $10,000 per month," Becker said. "Who can afford that?"
Part of the problem is that many support options don't emerge for cancer patients and their families until they are bankrupt. Becker said the goal of the new program is to reach people when they still have means and assets and before they make hasty decisions.
Tom Gladbach of Minneapolis said he was overwhelmed nearly a decade ago after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Government support, debt forgiveness by health care providers and community fundraisers helped save the family from ruin, but only after they had exhausted the college fund for their two children and spent every dime on medical bills.
"Let's figure out [how to help] somewhere in the middle so people don't have to go to zero," said Gladbach, whose wife, Heather, died last year.
Gladbach said he isn't sure what he would have done differently, given the enormity of the medical bills, but financial advice at the start would have prepared him and maybe reduced the stress and anxiety he suffered.
Health insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and financial planner Ameriprise are key supporters of the Angel program, which has raised $280,000 of its $419,000 budget. Patients will be screened for the support program starting next year.
Becker said the goal is to prove that the financial management reduces stress and improves options for cancer patients — enough to motivate businesses to launch their own versions of the program.