Doing More to help navigate better care for cancer patients

Thirteen years ago, Jennifer Bail lost her mother to breast cancer. The news alone was devastating, but navigating the financial demands throughout the battle created stress and frustration she remembers to this day.

“My mother had a limited income,” Jennifer says. “We didn’t know how we were going to pay for meds, much less food.”

When her mother needed anti-nausea pills during a rough bout of chemotherapy, Jennifer was shocked to learn that a prescription for 10 pills would cost $500. In line at the pharmacy, she balked at the cost and was told to call her physician. The physician, her mother’s doctor for 10 years, didn’t know Jennifer's mother lacked prescription coverage and was able to provide samples to get through the treatment.

“There was no such thing as a navigator for her,” she explains. “There was no one to help guide us.”

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The loss of her mother, after two years as a caregiver, forced Jennifer to re-commit her life. A former systems analyst with the missile defense program, she changed her diet, exercise routine and career. Fresh off completing her RN requirements at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Jennifer started studying for her doctorate at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, with a focus on cancer research — her passion — and participated in the Navigator training program.

Working with nonprofit organizations, Regions participated in a conference to help train SPARC Navigators and community members who will provide support for cancer patients. SPARC (Supportive and Palliative Advocacy Resource for the Community) is a community resource made possible by the Women’s Breast Health Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. The program is open to those working with breast cancer survivors and others who want more education, training or resources. SPARC provides lay navigators and community leaders throughout the region with easily accessible and affordable educational opportunities.

On a steamy June day, Jennifer attended the inaugural Regions Financial Fundamentals: Managing Your Money conference, an educational forum to teach trained navigators to help patients diagnosed with cancer — and their families — get through the tough months after initial diagnosis. The conference was held at the American Cancer Society’s headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama.

“One of the most important things we can do is help patients take control of their finances,” explains Linda Germany Kramer, Corporate Social Responsibility program manager for Regions. “People may need help planning how to handle daily expenses, like groceries, and big expenses like medical bills.”

The training session was held at the Birmingham office of the American Cancer Society.

Teneramie Hall, a resource advocator and social worker at Princeton Hospital, says helping cancer patients was her passion. And the new resources and advice are a godsend.

“This is groundbreaking, because I had not heard of any other financial institution stepping into this realm,” Teneramie says. “To think Regions cares about its customers’ health and well-being puts them way ahead of the curve.”

The conference included advice and guidance from experts in the field.

Thomas Stroud, Regions’ Workplace Banking coordinator, taught eight aspiring navigators about financial goals, tracking expenses, budgeting and tools to manage cash flow. He also provided links to online resources and noted that communication is key, especially when medical bills can outweigh income.

“Help your patients understand how important it is to communicate with the people owed money, whether it’s a mortgage or a credit card,” Thomas says. “Make good-faith arrangements. Remember, you are the advocates. You have to advocate for your patients now.”

Doug Horst, program director of the nonprofit Gateway Financial Freedom based in Birmingham, told his own story about learning about the need for advocates and Navigators when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2006, a year after their youngest child was born.

Doug pointed out that Gateway offers social services to cancer patients, including credit and bankruptcy counseling. He noted from life experience that the best way to help the patient fight was to get on top of finances at the start.

“When you have a spending plan, there’s much less stress as you fight cancer,” he says.

Trish Hoover and Shayne Rittman of United Way of Central Alabama detailed the 2-1-1 Alabama Community Resource Directory, an online and phone accessible guide to help with financial, family and medical issues.