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Juneau resident Kate Coleman is still paying off doctors for treatment of breast cancer diagnosed last year, but a bill signed today by Gov. Tony Knowles could spare many women the financial hardship.
The measure expands Medicaid coverage to include more women diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer through a federal screening program. Coleman was diagnosed with cancer through the program, but made too much money to qualify for treatment yet not enough to buy insurance. She figures it will take years to pay off more than $12,000 in medical bills.
"My hope is this will help some people," said Coleman, who lobbied the state Legislature for the bill. "It's definitely a step forward in people being able to get treatment for diseases."
Under the old system, only women who made about $800 monthly or less and were pregnant, under 21, over 65, permanently disabled or had a child could qualify for federal assistance for breast and cervical cancer treatment, said Nancy Weller, of the state Division of Medical Assistance.
Under the new law, women who make up to $2,236 monthly would be eligible, said Weller, noting the measure increases the income limit from 72 percent of the federal poverty rate to 250 percent.
The expanded health coverage is available to women diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer through a federal screening program called the Centers for Disease Control Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Approximately 4,000 Alaska women last year used the screening program, said Weller, who figures an additional 42 women annually will qualify for cancer treatment.
Once the women are admitted into the Medicaid program, they will be eligible for other benefits too, said Weller, noting a women treated for breast cancer under the new law also would qualify for treatment of ailments unrelated to the cancer. However, the Medicaid coverage will end once the cancer is treated, she said.
The new law will cost the state about $175,000 annually to tap $413,000 in federal dollars for the program. Knowles today applauded the bill, a revised version of one he introduced.
"These women have been trapped in a terrible predicament," Knowles said in a press release. "Although the federal screening program would diagnose their cancer, there was no provision to pay for treatment. Until now."
Although it breezed through the state House, the Senate did not pass the bill easily. Debate was heated and emotional at times as Sen. Lyda Green, a breast cancer survivor, opposed the bill. Green, a Matanuska-Susitna Republican, was concerned about the precedent of raising the income eligibility cap only for specific illnesses.
"I don't think it's a good public policy direction," Green said last month.
She also questioned the price tag, saying the cost to the state could go up. Green held the bill in her committee but cut it loose under pressure from U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who sent a letter to all 60 legislators calling the bill "a very important priority to me."
The state Senate then passed an amended version that included a sunset provision to end the expanded coverage in two years. However, a House-Senate conference committee hammered out compromise language clarifying that women enrolled before the two-year repeal would continue their treatment, at 100 percent state expense if necessary. Knowles today vowed he would try to strip the sunset provision from the law next year.
The expanded coverage, which takes effect immediately, does not apply to Native women because they already qualify for coverage through Indian Health Services, another federal program.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.