Cancer care: The choice is clear

My turn

Posted: Friday, April 27, 2001

What would you pay to save your mother, sister, or daughter if they were diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer and had no insurance to cover treatment? What should the state contribute to save the lives of Alaska women in exactly that situation? Is $175,000 too much to pay to help dozens of women stay alive? The legislature has an opportunity to help Alaska women get treatment for cancer by opting into a new Medicaid provision made available to states last year by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate.

Congress recognized the value of screening and early detection when it passed the Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention Act of 1990 which established the Center for Disease Control's (CDC's) National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP). The program provides screening exams to underserved women and has diagnosed more than 5,800 breast cancers and more than 500 cervical cancers across the nation. Alaska has participated in the NBCCEDP since 1995. The program focuses on early detection because the survival rate for both breast and cervical cancer increases significantly the earlier the diagnosis.

But what happens after the women are diagnosed? Thankfully Congress adopted the Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention and Treatment Act of 2000 to provide full Medicaid benefits to uninsured women identified through this program. If Alaska opts into this new provision we will receive $413,400 to help provide cancer treatment to Alaska's eligible women if we provide a $175,000 match.

Gov. Knowles introduced Senate Bill 38 and its companion House Bill 65 to adopt the new Medicaid option. It is one of a handful of bills he considers to be "must have" legislation this year. Why? Because it can help save lives. In the United States a woman will be diagnosed with breast cancer every two minutes and a woman will die of breast cancer every 13 minutes, according to the American Cancer Society. The Department of Health and Social Service has estimated that there are approximately 70 women in Alaska who have been diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer and may be eligible for this program.

But these 70 Alaska women aren't just statistics. They are our mothers, sisters, grandmothers, friends, and neighbors. Like Kate Coleman who lives in Juneau and Barbara DuBois from Anchorage.

Kate, a widow with three daughters, had just switched insurance companies when she was diagnosed with a breast abnormality. Neither her old insurance nor her new insurance covered the treatment necessary to save her life from the cancer that developed from that abnormality. She does the best she can with the knowledge that it will take many years to pay off her medical bills.

Just before Christmas, Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer. She could not afford health insurance before she was diagnosed and now she can't afford the cancer treatment she so desperately needs. One month of chemotherapy costs as much as what she earns in a year.

Kate and Barbara have a choice - to get treatment and face bankruptcy or skip treatment and face death. Although this legislation comes too late to help Kate and Barbara, they want us to understand why SB 38 and HB 65 are important for the women who are eligible under this program. And so they are doing as much as they can to convince legislators to pass the bill. They have been telling their stories, talking to their legislators.

Although there is less than two weeks left in the session there is still time for the Legislature to act on this important legislation. Contact your legislator. Please tell them you agree this is a "must have" bill this session. Lives depend on it.

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