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Cancer Society ads: Lack of insurance costing lives

  • Story Highlights
  • People who lack insurance not getting checkups, society says
  • At least 55,000 cancer patients die without insurance, society says
  • Ads highlight the plights of three women
  • Critics says American Cancer Society should stay out of politics
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The American Cancer Society is devoting its entire $15 million advertising budget for 2007 to highlight the problems faced by Americans who don't have any or enough health insurance.

The society says that, because they lack insurance, people may not be getting the checkups they need to catch cancer early, when treatments are more successful.

"Reducing suffering and death from cancer may only truly be possible if all Americans are able to visit their doctor for regular checkups, early detection screening tests and prompt, quality cancer treatment if and when they need it," said Richard C. Wender, national volunteer president of the society.

The ad campaign is "going to tell the American people that a large and growing number of people are dying needlessly from cancer, because they don't have access to our health care system," said John Seffrin, the society's chief executive officer.

Dr. Otis Brawley, incoming chief medical officer of the cancer society, said 1 in 10 cancer patients lack insurance.

Almost 560,000 Americans will die from cancer this year, and the American Cancer Society estimates 36,377 cancer patients will die without insurance.

An estimated 47 million Americans are without health insurance, according to the most recent Census Bureau statistics. A 2003 report published in Health Affairs says an additional 16 million Americans were underinsured, lacking adequate insurance to protect them against catastrophic health care expenses.

In what the society's Web site calls "an emotional advertising campaign," three uninsured or underinsured cancer patients tell how their plight has affected their lives.

Lisa Cristia, of Chicago, Illinois, was diagnosed with tongue and neck cancer, and despite having health insurance, her treatments left her $65,000 in debt. While undergoing treatments, she lost her job and eventually was forced to declare bankruptcy because she could not fight off the debt collectors any other way.

"It's bad enough that people have to fight for their lives, and fight to get well ... they shouldn't have to fight for financial freedom," Cristia said.

Raina Bass, a mother in Boonville, Missouri, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year at age 25.

Although she had two types of health insurance, many of her medical expenses were not covered, she said.

"The medical debt I have has been turned over to collection agencies," she said.

Kathy Merkel, a northern Minnesota woman in her early 40s, lost her job and two weeks later was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. Because she had no health insurance, Merkel said she never went for regular screenings.

She said she is inundated with medical bills, but still has no job and no income.

Merkel said she doesn't think people should have to fall out of the middle class because they got sick.

The ads represent a change for the society. Its previous ad campaigns have urged people to get checked for colon cancer or warned against the dangers of second-hand smoke.

"The American Cancer Society is going to try to get the American public to see how broke our health care system is through the face of people facing cancer," Seffrin said.

The ad campaign was criticized as pushing a "political agenda" in a Wall Street Journal op-ed written last week by New York's former lieutenant governor and health policy official Betsy McCaughey.

"These ads will waste money that should be used to continue the society's educational campaign about prevention and detection," wrote McCaughey, chairwoman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.

"The evidence shows that universal health coverage does not improve survival rates for cancer patients," the September 14 op-ed stated.

"The American Cancer Society should continue its lifesaving messages about prevention and screening instead of switching to a political agenda. The goal should be to ensure that all patients receive the timely care our current system provides, not to radically overhaul the system."

McCaughey, who served under New York Gov. George Pataki, criticized then-President Clinton's health care plan in 1994 in a New Republic article titled, "No Exit."

The ads begin running Monday on networks including CNN, NBC, Fox News, the History Channel and the Weather Channel. They will run until Thanksgiving, according to American Cancer Society spokeswoman Becky Steinmark. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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