Kate Coleman switched insurance plans and later found herself without coverage for breast cancer, which was termed "a pre-existing condition" by the new company.
Coleman, 48, a semi-retired widow who lives in Juneau, said she was ineligible for government assistance through Medicaid because Social Security survivor's benefits pushed her above the income limit, even if she chose not to accept them.
To help address such situations, Gov. Tony Knowles today offered legislation that takes advantage of recent congressional action to broaden Medicaid coverage for treatment of breast and cervical cancer. By increasing the income limit from 72 percent of the federal poverty rate to 250 percent, Congress is targeting women who have earned too much for conventional Medicaid coverage but not enough to buy their own health insurance.
Knowles would spend about $175,000 a year in state money annually to leverage an additional $325,000 in federal funds. In a news conference this morning, he called it "dirt cheap" for the state and "a bill that would literally be the
difference between life and death for some Alaskans."
"I can't think of any better way to spend that money," he said. "Hopefully, it's a very quick action by the Legislature, and I'm sure they will respond."
Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican, said women aren't denied treatment, regardless of financial resources, so when Knowles calls it a life-and-death issue, "He isn't telling it like it is."
Leman questioned whether Medicaid is the right means of addressing the problem, saying providers find the process cumbersome.
Although it has been a financial strain, Coleman seems headed toward a happy ending. All of her cancer apparently was removed as part of a biopsy, and she is undergoing radiation therapy that is expected to leave her with a clean bill of health.
But about 50 Alaskans will die this year of breast cancer or cervical cancer, said Karen Perdue, commissioner of Health and Social Services.
Those who survive may face staggering bills, Perdue said, with average treatment costs running at $18,000. "Being diagnosed with cancer is a very frightening experience, but to not have the means to pay for that treatment only adds to that terror."
Coleman said she was stunned when diagnosed last fall.
"Given this news, it is suddenly difficult to think. ... Somewhere, there's a clock ticking," she said.
The new Medicaid coverage would be available to women who have been diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer under a federally financed screening program. The administration estimates 70 Alaskan women would be able to get coverage for cancer treatment annually.
Perdue said it's not clear whether retroactive coverage can be extended, or whether women who have been diagnosed can go through the government screening program in order to become eligible for the extended coverage.
Dr. Maureen Longworth, head of the breast and cervical cancer early detection program for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, said her hope is the extended coverage will be an incentive for more women to get screened. Perdue and Longworth stressed the importance of breast exams and pap smears in identifying cancer early and greatly improving odds for survival.