A state program that provides free screenings for breast and cervical cancer to poor, uninsured women is freezing new enrollments, officials announced this week – the latest victim of state budget woes.
Citing increasing demand coupled with a decline in the cheap cigarettes tax revenue that pays for the program, Dr. Mark Horton, director of the California Department of Public Health, said in a written statement that beginning Jan. 1, the “Every Woman Counts” program will stop accepting new enrollments, at least through July 2.
The program will also stop breast cancer screenings for women under the age of 50. That move is in line with controversial guidelines issued last month by a government task force that said that women in their 40s don’t need mammograms and that women over 50 need them only every other year instead of annually. A number of medical associations still recommend regular screenings for women 40 and older.
State officials said the freeze in new enrollments will leave an estimated 100,000 poverty-stricken women unable to get cancer screenings over the next six months. Doctors and cancer associations warned that the move could cost lives, and some also expressed concern about the halt in screenings for women under the age of 50.
“I’m very unhappy to hear about the decision,” said Dr. Jon Greif, a breast cancer surgeon at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland.
Greif, past president of the American Cancer Society, said 75 percent of women who die from breast cancer have not had a mammogram in the past two years, and that cancer is the leading cause of death for women between the ages of 40 and 50.
“So this is the group – women who are uninsured or underinsured – who suffer the most from cancer … these are the very women at the greatest risk of dying from breast cancer, and we are denying them the opportunity to (seek) early detection,” Greif said.
The program has been at risk in recent years, as Marlboro cigarettes tax revenues have steadily declined. State officials were able to backfill cuts last fiscal year through other means, but Horton said this year – with the state facing a projected $20.7 billion deficit through June 2011 – the decline in tax revenue and the increase in demand have left health officials no choice.
“The changes we are making are necessary to ensure that the program is administered in a fiscally responsible manner,” he said. “The Every Woman Counts program is an integral part of the low-income health safety net. By making fiscally responsible programmatic changes we are working to ensure this program continues to be available to as many low-income women in California as possible.”
Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said the “unilateral cuts” come as a “shock and surprise.” Evans, chair of the Assembly’s budget committee, said health programs already took significant cuts under this year’s budget, and that it is shortsighted to cut screenings.
“This is foolhardy financially because this is a screening program that hopefully catches breast and cervical cancer before it needs to be treated – plus it is morally indefensible,” she said. “Prevention is worth more than an ounce of cure … what they are doing here is going after the most vulnerable, at-risk women.”
About 192,370 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,170 women will die of the disease in 2009, according to data from the National Cancer Institute.
source: San Francisco Chronicle
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