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Cancer Poses a Growing Challenge to Employers

Care for cancer patients costs employers an estimated $264 billion a year in health care costs and lost productivity, although cancer strikes just 1.6 percent of the workforce.

February 14, 2013

There are more cancer survivors in the workplace than ever before, and that's great news, but it also presents a challenge to employers struggling to control health care costs while improving the quality of care for their employees.

More than 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year in the U.S.; nearly half will be between 19 and 64 years old, according to the American Cancer Society. And almost 90 percent of survivors under 55 years old will return to work within a year of their diagnosis.

To help employers develop a comprehensive approach to managing cancer in the workplace, the National Business Group on Health, an association of more than 300 large U.S. employers, and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, a nonprofit alliance of leading cancer centers, plan to release an employer's guide to cancer care later this year.

"The need for resources to help employee benefit managers address cancer in the workplace was becoming apparent," says Liz Danielson, director of payer and employer initiatives at the cancer network, which is based in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. "Most employee benefit directors are good generalists, but very few have the time and expertise to delve into cancer-related issues." The organization "considers this to be an extremely important project that will benefit employers, patients, caregivers and providers of cancer care alike."

An Employer's Guide to Cancer Treatment and Prevention is part of a three-year initiative to raise awareness and help employers develop a standardized approach to cancer care through recommendations around benefit design, vendor management and plan administration. The publication is a compilation of online tool kits that the organizations began posting on their websites in 2011. The benefit design tool kit has been downloaded more than 41,000 times, says Ron Finch, vice president of the National Business Group on Health.

The tool kits address a wide range of issues, including medical, pharmacy and behavioral health benefits, cancer prevention and wellness, employee assistance programs, family medical leave, disability, survivorship and employee communications.

Among the recommendations is that the benefit plans include access "to a wide range of adult and pediatric cancer care providers," including oncologists, hematologists, surgeons who specialize in cancer, palliative care specialists, rehabilitation specialists, pathologists and other specialties. Plans should also include access to a center of excellence program for cancer treatment, provide travel and lodging assistance to transplant patients, and include coverage for hospice care, consultations about end of life, genetic testing and counseling, and a host of other benefits. The group also recommends contracting with a pharmacy benefit provider that covers evidence-based cancer treatment.

"An employee's ability to be productive, and even to continue working, will depend in part on the kind of benefits and support resources available," Danielson says. "This is true whether the employee is dealing with his or her own cancer or is providing support for a loved one who has cancer. Employers can help reduce these costs by providing well-designed benefits and programs, including disability, family medical leave and employee assistance programs."

Although cancer strikes just 1.6 percent of the workforce, disease-related costs account for 10 percent of health care spending for employers and that number is going up because of the rising cost of treatment. Cancer care costs employers an estimated $264 billion a year in health care and lost productivity, according to 2012 figures from the American Cancer Society.

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce's senior writer. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.