Both Medicaid and uninsured patients face disparities in care of deadly cancers

Disparities in Stage at Diagnosis, Treatment, and Survival in Nonelderly Adult Patients With Cancer According to Insurance Status

By Gary V. Walker, Stephen R. Grant, B. Ashleigh Guadagnolo, Karen E. Hoffman, Benjamin D. Smith, Matthew Koshy, Pamela K. Allen and Usama Mahmood
Journal of Clinical Oncology, August 4, 2014



The purpose of this study was to determine the association of insurance status with disease stage at presentation, treatment, and survival among the top 10 most deadly cancers using the SEER database.

Patients and Methods 

A total of 473,722 patients age 18 to 64 years who were diagnosed with one of the 10 most deadly cancers in the SEER database from 2007 to 2010 were analyzed. A Cox proportional hazards model was used for multivariable analyses to assess the effect of patient and tumor characteristics on cause-specific death.


Overall, patients with non-Medicaid insurance were less likely to present with distant disease (16.9%) than those with Medicaid coverage (29.1%) or without insurance coverage (34.7%; P < .001). Patients with non-Medicaid insurance were more likely to receive cancer-directed surgery and/or radiation therapy (79.6%) compared with those with Medicaid coverage (67.9%) or without insurance coverage (62.1%; P < .001). In a Cox regression that adjusted for age, race, sex, marital status, residence, percent of county below federal poverty level, site, stage, and receipt of cancer-directed surgery and/or radiation therapy, patients were more likely to die as a result of their disease if they had Medicaid coverage (hazard ratio [HR], 1.44; 95% CI, 1.41 to 1.47; P < .001) or no insurance (HR, 1.47; 95% CI, 1.42 to 1.51; P < .001) compared with non-Medicaid insurance.


Among patients with the 10 most deadly cancers, those with Medicaid coverage or without insurance were more likely to present with advanced disease, were less likely to receive cancer-directed surgery and/or radiation therapy, and experienced worse survival.



By Don McCanne, MD

Clearly, insured patients with one of the most deadly cancers have better outcomes than uninsured patients. Of concern is that this study shows that patents on Medicaid do not do much better than uninsured patients. What can we make of this?

Medicaid coverage is limited to low-income populations. These people have many other problems that can result in impaired access and impaired outcomes - conceivably enough to explain these differences. However, Medicaid also may result in impaired access because of a lack of an adequate number of physicians who are willing to care for Medicaid patients. This is particularly true of specialists, such as oncologists who would otherwise care for these patients with the most deadly cancers. Impaired access due to a lack of willing providers applies to both uninsured and Medicaid patients. That is not true for either privately insured or Medicare patients.

Under a well designed single payer system - an improved Medicare for all - physicians would not cull patients out of their practices merely because they were on Medicaid or uninsured. Enacting single payer would allow us to remove barriers based simply on the type of insurance coverage or lack thereof. That would then allow us address other important societal issues that result in impaired access, delayed or forgone management, and impaired survival.

Although this study will be used by opponents as an excuse not to fund Medicaid based on the fact that Medicaid patients did not do much better than the uninsured, we cannot allow them to discount the other factors faced by low-income patients that undoubtedly played a greater role in these disparate outcomes. Many other studies have shown that Medicaid patients definitely fare better than the uninsured. Until we can enact and implement a single payer system, it is imperative that Medicaid continue to be offered as an interim measure.