It’s October, one of my favorite months because it means so many things I love — honeycrisp apples, pumpkin patches, hayrides, cider, Halloweeen candy, my birthday. And in recent years, I’ve been able to add to my “October loves” list watching NFL games where the players level bone-crunching hits on one another while wearing pink gloves and shoes to support the Think Pink initiative as part of October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As hard as I tried to find pink shoes as cool as the ones the NFLers wear, my way of helping to honor BCAM is through today’s guest post from Deborah Sternberg, EVP at Always Care Benefits and Starmount Life Insurance Company, who articulates better than I could the important role your benefits plans play in combating breast cancer. Enjoy, and as always share your thoughts in the comments.

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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. With that visability, women everywhere will be reminded to focus on their health for a moment and hopefully consider what their plans will be should they face a critical illness such as breast cancer.

Even with increasing awareness and more women receiving yearly mammogram screenings, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of new breast cancer cases worldwide, from about 640,000 in 1980 to more than 1.6 million in 2010, according to a new study by the University of Washington.  However, the study also shows that women in the United States and the United Kingdom have greatly lowered their risk of dying from breast cancer by receiving more screenings and receiving treatment promptly after being diagnosed.

The reality is this — the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer is higher now than 20 years ago, but the survival rates have greatly increased in that time as well. Based on these numbers, it is vital that women get screened regularly and have a financial plan if the unthinkable should happen — a breast cancer diagnosis.

It’s a common misconception that health insurance coverage will shield an individual diagnosed with a serious illness from financial hardship.  The truth is that health insurance will not cover all of the related costs.

In 2009, the American Journal of Medicine reported that nearly 62% of all bankruptcies in 2007 were caused by medical expenses, a figure nearly 14% higher than in a similar study conducted just four years earlier. Even more alarming, 75% of those who declared medical bankruptcy reported having health insurance.

So, why are so many patients going bankrupt, even with health coverage? Because as much as two-thirds of all costs related to critical illnesses and accidents are non-medical, including lost income, transportation to and from treatment, necessary medical renovations to the home, family lodging and meals purchased during a patient’s hospital stay.

Critical illness insurance pays a lump-sum, cash benefit in the event of the diagnosis of a critical illness such as breast cancer. Women with children can especially appreciate the need for critical illness insurance. This payment can be used any way they see fit — paying the mortgage, funding daycare or going on a much needed vacation. Some critical illness plans include a health advocacy program that can provide the extra support needed to navigate through the health care and insurance maze, and wellness benefits that help pay for preventive screenings like mammograms.

Women should take time in October to schedule a mammogram screening, especially if they are age 40 or older and think about their fallback plan. In addition, benefits professionals can use this month to remind employees about the importance of screenings, educate employees about their insurance options should they unfortunately be diagnosed with breast cancer and encourage senior leaders to consider additional benefits and supports they might offer to assist current and future cancer patients. The chances for a positive diagnosis may be higher today, but the chances of financial insecurity don’t have to be.

Deborah Sternberg is Executive Vice President at AlwaysCare Benefits, Inc., one of the country's fastest-growing group benefits and insurance providers, and Starmount Life Insurance Company, both headquartered in Baton Rouge, La. Contact her at Deborah@AlwaysCareBenefits.com or 888-729-5433 x240.

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