House rejects Senate changes to cancer bill

Posted: Monday, May 07, 2001

The House of Representatives, in a stinging 40-0 rebuke to the Senate, has refused to accept a Senate-approved sunset clause in a bill providing coverage for breast and cervical cancer treatment for uninsured women.

Gov. Tony Knowles on Sunday had called upon the House to reject the amendment.

Knowles said that by automatically dropping the coverage in two years, the state could cut off a woman's benefits in the middle of potentially life-saving treatment.

"Even if the Legislature chooses to renew the coverage after two years, it will cause those who are relying on this treatment to undergo the tremendous added stress of wondering whether they will be covered during their treatment," the governor wrote in a letter to House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican.

Without discussion, the House this afternoon unanimously refused to concur with the Senate version of the bill. Porter immediately appointed members to a conference committee to work out differences with the Senate.

After sometimes acrimonious debate, the Senate Saturday voted 20-0 in favor of House Bill 65, which would take advantage of a change in federal law that lets states provide treatment through Medicaid for women whose breast or cervical cancer is detected through a federal screening program for low-income women.

Women whose income is 130 percent above the federal poverty level already qualify. Under provisions of the bill, women whose income is less than 250 percent of the poverty level would be able to receive treatment.

A single woman earning $26,075 would qualify without having to spend down her assets. Women with children would have higher income levels. The state estimates it would treat about 42 more women a year if the bill passes.

When Sen. Lyda Green, a Matanuska-Susitna Republican who chairs the Senate Health, Education and Social Services Committee, refused to move the bill, one of Alaska's U.S. senators, Frank Murkowski, made an unusual appeal for legislative action.

But Green's committee stirred controversy by the adding the sunset clause and requiring a report on whether behavioral factors, such as promiscuity, might be causing cancer.

Sen. Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican, said the reporting requirement had been unfairly portrayed by Democrats as an intrusion into the lives of cancer patients. Leman, offering an amendment that modified the report, said it would merely give the state access to information already collected by federal officials.

Green, a breast cancer survivor, had a heated argument on the Senate floor with Drue Pearce, an Anchorage Republican who voted with Democrats against the additions that had been made in the HESS committee. "Don't go there," Green shouted at one point, after slamming her palms down on the front of Pearce's desk during a break in official business. Green later cried during a floor speech.

Empire reporter Bill McAllister contributed to this article.

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