There is a racial gap in childhood cancer diagnoses

Health insurance access may explain why children who are part of racial and ethnic minority groups tend to get diagnosed with cancer at more advanced stages.

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Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers insurance and personal finance. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

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Children who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups tend to get diagnosed with cancer at a more advanced stage than white children, access to health insurance may explain why.

That’s according to new research published in Cancer, an academic journal from the American Cancer Society. Researchers examined data from 18 cancer registries to see whether there were differences in diagnosis by race. “We found by comparing minorities to whites, that minorities were more likely to be diagnosed at a distant stage of cancer,” says Kimberly Johnson, an associate professor at Washington University and a co-author of the study. Cancers diagnosed at later stages tend to be more fatal.

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The researchers dug further into the data to see whether access to health insurance played a role in these disparities, and found that it did: Black and Hispanic people who had private insurance instead of Medicaid or no insurance had less of a gap in diagnosis.

“If everybody had the same health insurance we would expect some of these disparities between race and stage of diagnosis to go away,” Johnson says.

Why some children are still uninsured

Children whose parents can’t afford private health insurance should be able to qualify for coverage through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which was specifically created to cover uninsured children back in 1997. But around 5% of children ages 0 through 18 have no insurance coverage. Some families may not know they qualify for public health insurance because of a lack of awareness or, especially for Hispanic people, a language barrier, Johnson says. 

While people with Medicaid have access to health insurance, they still face many barriers to accessing health care. Many of them are poor and may have difficulty affording transportation to health providers, for example. Many medical providers don't accept Medicaid.

But as policymakers become more aware of disparities, they’ve become smaller over time, Johnson says.

“There’s a lot more attention to it and I think the data is starting to show some of these gaps are becoming narrower,” she says.

Tips for getting access to health care for your family

Even if you don’t qualify for health insurance through Medicaid, your children may be eligible for coverage through the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP covers children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid. You can apply through the Health Insurance Marketplace at healthcare.gov. You can also apply through your state’s Medicaid website. 

“If you’re a parent of a child with cancer you should definitely be talking to your social worker [to find out more about what services and coverage may be available to you],” Johnson says.

Even if you have health insurance, it’s important to use it to the fullest. Preventive services like an annual physical, and screenings for many health conditions should be covered without a charge for a copayment or coinsurance. Taking advantage of these services can help catch serious illnesses like cancer before they progress too far. 

Image: Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty

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Senior Reporter

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

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Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers insurance and personal finance. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

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