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By Real World Health Care Editorial Staff  |  May 3, 2023

Don’t Let a Tank of Gas Stand in the Way of Needed Medical Treatment

The diagnosis can be frightening enough. Hearing you or your child has cancer, a rare disease or other chronic health condition can send the heart sinking and the mind spinning. Is the condition treatable? What do treatments entail? How will your quality of life be impacted?

Then comes the financial concerns. Will you be forced to miss work, take a leave of absence or quit your job while you or your child copes with the effects of the disease? How costly are the treatments? How much will insurance cover?

Transportation Insecurity Is a Nationwide Problem

These concerns are very real for Americans with chronic and life-altering illnesses. And for many, they are compounded by an additional practical and financial worry: how to get to their doctor’s appointments and treatments.

  • About 8.5 percent of Americans don’t have access to a car, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data, although that percentage climbs to 30-35 percent in areas like New York and the District of Columbia.
  • According to the American Public Transportation Association, more than two in five Americans have no access to public transportation.
  • Affording gasoline or other transportation costs is now a top concern for U.S. adults, with about 71 percent polled by Kaiser Family Foundation in March 2022 noting that they are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about being able to afford these costs (up from 40 percent who said the same in February 2020).

Transportation insecurity – defined as a condition in which one is unable to regularly move from place to place in a safe and timely manner because they lack the material, economic or social resources necessary for transportation – is a key measure of poverty and a social determinant of health. It affects people in large cities, small towns, suburbs and rural areas across the country and prevents 3.6 million Americans from receiving medical care each year.

Patients facing transportation insecurity should discuss their concerns with their health care team. Often a care team’s social worker or patient navigator can help them find local services or volunteers to assist. Several national charitable organizations also provide assistance.

Compass to Care: Built from Personal Experience

Michelle Ernsdorff-May is the founder and CEO of Compass to Care, a 501(c)(3) organization that provides free, non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) solutions to access lifesaving cancer treatment and clinical trials for children fighting cancer and facing poverty or cancer-related financial toxicity.

Ernsdorff-May knows all too well the impact a cancer diagnosis can have on a family because she experienced it herself. She was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer at 14 months, and there were no pediatric oncologists in her hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. Her family, forced to seek treatment for Ernsdorff-May at a clinic 200 miles away from home, soon discovered the financial burden of a year and a half of back-and-forth travel.

Michelle Ernsdorff-May

Michelle Ernsdorff-May

“One time, I was hospitalized unexpectedly,” she says. “My mother stayed with me in the hospital, but my father had to get back home to work. He ended up hitchhiking home because he didn’t have the money for a bus ticket or car rental. Later in life, I found out this type of extreme scenario is all too common.”

According to Ernsdorff-May, only about 200 pediatric cancer centers exist in the U.S., and 30 percent of children have to travel at least 60 miles to reach an oncologist. This travel can be particularly burdensome in the early stages of cancer diagnosis, when frequent trips to the doctor are needed for testing and treatment planning.

“Because parents can’t take short- or long-term disability to care for a child, they have no choice but to reduce their work hours or take unpaid Family & Medical Leave,” she says, noting that one in four families lose 40 percent of their household income when a child is diagnosed with cancer. “They quickly find themselves on the slippery slope of having to pay for increased medical and non-medical expenses with reduced or no income.”

Read how Compass to Care helped Amy and her son Codey receive the experimental treatment he needed to fight the neuroblastoma he’s been living with for 16 years.

Fighting Cancer One Trip at a Time

Today, Compass to Care helps pediatric cancer patients and their families by providing financial assistance for airfare, gasoline, lodging, parking fees, taxi or ride share services, and train fare. Patients, their loved ones, or care team can apply online and receive assistance in as little as 24-48 hours.

“A tank of gas, a train ride or even a plane ticket may seem like a minor issue in the face of medical costs that can run thousands or tens of thousands of dollars,” Ernsdorff-May says. “However, research points to a risk of relapse when a child misses just one daily dose of chemotherapy in a two-week course. That’s why we want to help ensure that children arrive on time, every time treatment is scheduled.”

Mercy Medical Angels Restores Hope and Health

Mercy Medical Angels also helps to remove barriers to medical care through air and ground transportation assistance. Since 1972, it has provided more than 300,000 trips for patients who can’t afford to travel to long-distance health care, with 35,000 trips just last year.

Mercy Medical Angels provides transportation assistance through several affiliated organizations:

  • Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic: a network of experienced volunteer pilots who generously donate their time, private airplane and resources to transport patients to medical care.
  • Angel Wings for Veterans: provides flights to veterans and their families to vital health care resources they can’t otherwise afford.
  • Angel Canines and Wounded Warriors: provides transportation to vetted service dog organizations for veterans with post-traumatic stress or depression.
  • Angel Wheels: provides ground transportation with gas cards and bus or train tickets to non-local medical care more than 50 miles away.
Stephanie Singer

Stephanie Singer

“Our volunteer pilots are the most wonderful people on the planet,” says Stephanie Singer, communications specialist, Mercy Medical Angels. “If for some reason, we can’t fly a patient on a general aviation aircraft, the pilot will drive the patient to the airport for a commercial flight.”

Singer notes that the organization is always looking for volunteer pilots, “If you enjoy flying and want to make a difference in the lives of others doing something you love, please contact us.”

In addition to volunteer pilots, Mercy Medical Angels works with commercial airlines to provide charitable flight assistance. Read how they partnered with one airline to help 14-year-old Emma and her mother get from Arkansas to New York for treatment of several life-altering medical conditions.

Unexpected Financial Burdens

To help people understand the role that transportation insecurity has, Mercy Medical Angels points to stories like Emma’s and to Liliana’s, whose sudden diagnosis of a rare kidney disease created an unexpected financial burden for her family.

“Transportation insecurity can happen to anyone, not just those who have had long-term financial problems,” she explains. “Often, it happens to families in which one or both parents have worked and built their savings over the years. A sudden diagnosis can wipe out those savings pretty quickly.”

Singer invites families who need assistance traveling to health care treatments to apply online for help from Mercy Medical Angels.

Travel Assistance Available from the HealthWell Foundation

The HealthWell Foundation (publisher of Real World Health Care) currently offers several assistance funds designed to help patients with transportation-related costs:

“Financial and transportation insecurities can create long-lasting effects,” says Krista Zodet, president & CEO, HealthWell Foundation. “We are honored to help patients access the treatments they need for life-altering illnesses.”

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