ANCHORAGE - A bill to make sure state-regulated insurance plans cover tests for colon cancer, the nation's second most lethal form of cancer, was signed on Wednesday by Gov. Frank Murkowski.
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Alaska Natives have the highest rate of colon cancer in the country, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Screening is essential because colon cancer normally retreats if caught early. The five-year survival rate is 90 percent if pre-cancerous polyps are found and removed from the colon, but the number plummets to 10 percent with late detection. Symptoms, like bloody stools and abdominal pain, don't surface until the disease's later stages.
The bill, which takes effect Jan. 1, would apply to about a third of all insurance plans in the state. Other policies are federally regulated or provided by companies that are self-insured, said Emily Nenon, government relations director at the American Cancer Society.
Screenings for prostate, cervical and breast cancers are already covered under state-regulated plans. The colon cancer bill arrived later because public awareness about the critical link between testing and prevention has grown more slowly, Nenon said.
More than 55,000 people in the U.S. will die from the disease in 2006, according to an estimate by the American Cancer Society.
A few insurance companies already include colon cancer screening in some of their plans, said Jeffrey Trout deputy director of the state Division of Insurance. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Anderson, D-Anchorage, sets an example for those that do not, Nenon said.
"We know from talking to people around the state that it's not universally covered," Nenon said.
Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska pays full expenses for one type of colon cancer test, the fecal occult test. The colonoscopy is covered under a deductible, according to Scott Forslund, spokesman for the company.
Age, genetics and a history of long-term inflammatory bowel disease are all factors in colon cancer risk, according to the American Cancer Society. Colon cancer develops most commonly in people 50 and older.