Skip to Main

Liver cancer treatment costly for Medicare patients, UT Southwestern study finds

Liver cancer is forecast to be the No. 3 cause of cancer deaths by 2040, said Dr. Amit Singal and his colleagues. Cancer treatment costs in the United States are expected to approach $250 billion by 2030. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

DALLAS – Jan. 30, 2023 – Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common type of liver cancer, can place a significant financial burden on patients, according to an analysis led by a researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Dr. Amit Singal is Professor of Internal Medicine in UTSW’s Division of Digestive and Liver Diseases and a member of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The study, which looked at costs for patients with HCC in the first year after diagnosis, found that median Medicare payments exceeded $65,000 and out-of-pocket costs were more than $10,000 – significantly more than costs for patients with cirrhosis alone. 

The study, led by Amit Singal, M.D., Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Digestive and Liver Diseases and a member of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern, was published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

“As has been shown for other cancer types, we found patients with liver cancer suffer from high cancer-related financial burden. Financial toxicity of cancer therapy can negatively impact patients, resulting in medical debt and even bankruptcy for some patients,” said Dr. Singal, Medical Director of UTSW's Liver Tumor Program and a Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care.

The total cost of cancer treatment in the United States is expected to reach nearly $250 billion by 2030. The team chose to investigate outcomes in liver cancer given its rising incidence and mortality rate. Liver cancer mortality is accelerating, in part due to continued detection at late stages, and it is expected to be the third-leading cause of cancer deaths by 2040, according to Dr. Singal and his team.

The cost of liver cancer treatment has been little studied, the researchers said. Several treatments have become available for patients in the past decade, including new surgeries, radiation-based therapies, and immunotherapies, making it essential to understand the financial impact of treatment. Although these therapies can be effective, they also can be quite expensive and difficult for patients to afford.

Using data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Medicare database, the study looked at first-year treatment costs for 4,525 patients ages 68 and older who were diagnosed with liver cancer between 2011 and 2015. The study compared costs for patients with HCC with those for a matched set of patients with cirrhosis.

Sixty-seven percent of the patients in the study were male; 72% were white, 7.5% Black, 3.7% Hispanic, and 16.7% other ethnicities. Medication claims were not included because they were not available for all patients covered by Medicare parts A and B.

The analysis found that patients with liver cancer had significantly higher inpatient, outpatient, and physician costs compared with the cirrhosis-only patients. Median out-of-pocket costs for the first year of treatment were more than $7,000 higher than the costs for the cirrhosis patients.

The analysis found that patients with early-stage liver cancer had lower costs. Patients with certain co-existing conditions, such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and ascites (fluid in the abdomen), experienced higher costs. These differences in costs across subgroups are notable because most patients are found beyond an early stage, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is an increasingly common underlying factor for liver cancer.

“Our data highlight that HCC care not only causes considerable financial stress on the health care system but directly for patients and their family members, who suffer from high out-of-pocket costs. There is a clear need for policy interventions and financial support systems in this patient population,” said Dr. Singal.

This study was supported by grants through the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (RP170259), the National Institutes of Health (R01 MD012565 and U01 CA230694), the Population Informatics Lab, and the Texas Virtual Data Library at Texas A&M University. Dr. Singal disclosed his financial interests in the manuscript.

Dr. Singal holds the Willis C. Maddrey, M.D. Distinguished Chair in Liver Disease.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 24 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 18 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,900 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 4 million outpatient visits a year.