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Insured young cancer patients fare better, live longer: study

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Young adults with cancer are far more likely to recover or live longer if they have health insurance, a new study on the potential impact of the Affordable Care Act shows.

The study published on Monday reports benefits for young people who were uninsured before the act, also called Obamacare, went into effect this year.

"Patients who were insured did better in pretty much every regard," said Dr. Ayal Aizer of Dana Farber Cancer Institute In Boston, whose study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The study used government data on thousands of patients aged 20 to 40 between 2007 and 2009.

He said insured patients were 16 percent more likely to seek treatment for cancers earlier in the process, when the disease was still curable, versus waiting until the cancer had spread to other parts of the body.

Insured patients also were twice as likely as uninsured patients to receive treatments such as radiation or surgery that could potentially cure their cancers.

Most importantly, insured cancer patients were about 20 percent more likely to survive than uninsured individuals.

Several cancer doctors at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting this week said they have yet to see a major impact of healthcare reform on routine patient care, largely because cancer is an age-related disease and many patients aged 65 and older are already insured through the government's Medicare insurance program.

Dr. Clifford Hudis, president of ASCO, said the group of people most likely to benefit from the Affordable Care Act are not those at highest risk for cancer, meaning the elderly.

But Aizer said the impact of insurance is significant for younger people. "There is a huge and heavy price to pay for being uninsured," Aizer said.

Dr. Ronald DePinho, chief executive of University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, has been a critic of the insurance programs offered on the healthcare marketplace, many of which exclude cancer specialty hospitals like his and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

"With cancer, which is the most complex of diseases, it takes institutions with a lot of experience to be able to diagnose the disease correctly and carry out multidisciplinary care of the patients. So it's important that the patient be afforded with the opportunity for access to care as well," he said.

Even so, DePinho sees a lot of benefits for cancer patients, especially with the focus on prevention in the health law, which covers major screening tests like mammograms with no co-pay.

"This tries to encourage individuals to be more proactive in taking charge of their health through prevention and detection strategies, which is critically important in cancer, because 50 percent of cancers can be preventable, and we already know that early detection of cancer has a very significant impact on survival," he said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Richard Chang)

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