Baby It’s Cold Outside: Meeting Utility Bills & Feeding the Family

Rodney Warner, Esq and Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN
Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Inc. and Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: February 1, 2010

Cold weather, a slowing economy, and cancer. The first two come and go, the last is a constant. In this slow economy, more and more folks are losing their jobs and facing economic hardship. Cold weather and cancer treatment may lead to additional financial burdens. If there are limited resources, patients may have to choose between heating, eating, and medicating.

I'm afraid that many people with cancer, currently working and with accommodations, may find themselves without a job. In prosperous times, granting special accommodations, such as reduced work schedules or changed duties, might not be a big deal for an employer. But in the face of significant revenue reductions, those accommodations might seem like a luxury they can no longer afford.

If a patient can't afford all of his or her expenses, medication might not be a priority. The New York Times has reported that in the third quarter of 2008, nationwide prescription sales decreased compared to the previous eight months. Though it was only a 1% decrease, this is the first quarterly drop in more than ten years. This could be the result of budget tightening, higher co-pays, and/or loss of prescription coverage. Skipping medications can make a condition worse, and more expensive to treat in the long run.

How can people get help with these expenses? Help is out there, but it may take some legwork and patience to find it. If you have access to a social worker at your cancer center, ask to meet with them. These individuals are knowledgeable about local agencies that help with utilities, food and other expenses. They may also be able to find help with medication expenses. Don't assume your income will prevent you from getting help; it can't hurt to ask when you are in need.

The government runs a program called Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps low income families meet home energy bills. Visit their website for more information. Contact your energy provider(s), as many have assistance programs. Do an Internet search for “finding help with utility bills Pennsylvania” (insert your state). Look for agency websites using a “.gov” (government entity) or “.org” (non-profit entity) address. Use caution before applying for anything online, read any fine print, and look for a phone number to call and ask questions (most government and non-profit groups will list a phone number somewhere on their site). Unfortunately, there are many businesses out there looking to make money off of your misfortune, so use good judgment, do your homework and if it seems to good to be true, it very well may be.

Eating is another basic need that often suffers during difficult economic times. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service has information about nutrition assistance. World Hunger Year (WHY) is an organization dedicated to ending hunger. Their website offers links to numerous food banks and nutrition programs and a tool to search in your area. Your local Chamber of Commerce may have a listing of organizations in your area that can help.

Medication costs can be overwhelming after a cancer diagnosis. If you are having trouble paying for medications, make sure your healthcare team knows. They may be able to offer some generic substitutes that are less expensive or know of programs that can help. Perhaps you have prescription coverage, but the co-pays are adding up. Some plans offer mail in prescription service, providing 3 months supply for the cost of one. Call your plan provider and ask for tips on how to save on co-pays. The Partnership for Prescription Assistance can help you find programs that help with medication expenses. The Patient Advocate Foundation offers help and resources for patients facing financial hardships. Talk to your nurse or a social worker in your cancer center for more ideas. Most importantly, make sure they are aware of the economic hardship the cost of medications is causing.


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