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‘UNFAIR’: Cancer survivors blast $10k price-tag for common procedure

·4-min read
Australian $50 notes, blurred image of four surgeons in surgery.
Breast reconstruction surgery is in the spotlight. (Images: Getty).

Australian women are waiting months or paying thousands of dollars for breast reconstruction surgeries, while others face hefty hospital delays worsened by COVID-19, with advocates now calling for urgent change.

A survey of 3,350 women diagnosed with breast cancer found that more than 20 per cent of those using the private health system are paying $10,000 for reconstructions.

At the same time, those in the public health system are being forced to wait for upwards of a year, the Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) revealed in its Breast Reconstruction in Australia 2021 report.

The average cost for a reconstruction in the private system is $8,285, but it varies by state.

Women in Tasmania need to pay the most on average, at $12,500, while women in Queensland pay the least, at $6,859.

Breast cancer reconstruction costs by state:

  • NSW - $8,166

  • VIC - $7905

  • WA - $8,638

  • QLD - $8,260

  • SA - $6,859

  • TAS - $12,500

  • ACT - $11,338

The Northern Territory had too small a sample size to report.

Across the country, 10.3 per cent of women in the private system reported paying more than $15,000 for their reconstructive surgery.

“It's unfair how expensive a reconstruction is. We didn't choose breast cancer,” one woman told the report.

Another woman described the gap for private patients as “outrageous”.

“You’re already hurting from a dent in your career - one that set me back financially. To have to spend more money on something you never wanted to go through is salt in the wound,” she said.

Pandemic blows out reconstruction times for women in the public system

“Women in the public health system are more likely to experience unacceptable delays to their breast reconstruction surgery compared to those going privately, with results showing 76 per cent in the public health system had to wait for the procedure and 27 per cent of these waited more than 12 months,” Breast Cancer Network Australia CEO Kirsten Pilatti said.

Respondents also said their delays had been blown out due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One woman told the report that she had initially been told to expect a six-12 month wait for her reconstruction. However, the COVID-19 pandemic blew that wait out to 18 months.

And of the women who had a delayed reconstruction, 54 per cent said it was due to COVID-19, with many experiencing increased anxiety and stress over the delay.

Lower-income women and those in regional Australia at further disadvantage

Women in regional and rural Australia face additional barriers to care, Pilatti added.

While 50 per cent of women were able to access reconstructive surgery within 20km of their home, 15 per cent travelled more than 100kms and 10 per cent had to travel over 200kms.

“Financially, I am breaking with the cost of regular travel and taking time off work. The bills don't stop,” another respondent told the report.

“Also, some hospital staff are not sympathetic to the needs of country patients and not always willing to help with little things like appointments on a Friday so I can take less time off work.”

Regional and rural women were also more likely to say they did not receive enough information on their reconstruction options.

The report found that younger women, those living in more socio-economically advantaged areas, and those in metropolitan areas were all more likely to undergo breast reconstruction.

The BCNA is calling for healthcare providers to offer greater transparency on breast reconstruction wait times, along with a greater commitment to telehealth for regional patients.

Additionally, it recommends the Federal Government develop a framework of “reasonable” out-of-pocket costs for private patients in partnership with healthcare providers, the BCNA and patients.

“Having a reconstruction after mastectomy is an individual choice. BCNA wants all women to be able to make an informed decision about what’s right for them,” Pilatti said.

“Those who choose to have a reconstruction should expect access to all options in order to make an informed decision, no matter who they are or where they live.”

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