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Incarceration Increases Death Risk for Cancer Patients

PBS News Hour reported on March 7, 2023, that people with cancer who have been incarcerated are more likely to die than patients who were never in prison. The reporting was based on research from the SEICHE Center for Health and Justice at the Yale University School of Medicine published in September 2022.

Researchers examined the relationship between cancer survival and incarceration by analyzing 10 years of data from more than 216,000 adults in Connecticut who were diagnosed with invasive cancers. They found that the risk of death rose when the cancer diagnosis took place during incarceration or during the first year after release from incarceration.

According to the study, cancer accounts for nearly one-third of all deaths among incarcerated people. Worldwide, the death rate from cancer is about 16%, though in the U.S. it is 20%, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There, the death rate from cancer is about 60% higher for those in prison.

Lack of adequate healthcare, according to the study, is a contributing factor to these higher mortality rates. Healthcare in prison is deplorable. But after release it doesn’t get much better, with many obstacles keeping a newly freed person from receiving crucial health care.

First, housing discrimination against many former prisoners is legal. But healthcare workers who feel threatened can also refuse to treat a former prisoner. If a doctor is found who will treat him or her, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to track down medical records from the prisons that detained them. Even in the best-case scenario, the study found, a former prisoner received cancer-related care at a much later date than someone who was never incarcerated.

Facing these high hurdles, released prisoners understandably focus on finding housing and employment before seeking medical care. Transportation must be secured before making a doctor’s appointment. As re-entry creates delays, the delays pile up, and by the time the formerly incarcerated individual manages to get proper medical treatment, it is often too late.

As PLN has reported, California now offers Medi-Cal benefits to prisoners with certain health conditions beginning 90 days before their release from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The waiver to Medicaid rules, which otherwise bar benefits to people while incarcerated, was approved by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and took effect on January 23, 2023. [See: PLN, Apr. 2023, p.35.] 

Additional source: PBS News