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GOP women say study augurs perils

McMorris Rodgers
McMorris Rodgers

Illustrating the continuing political fallout from controversial new recommendations on breast cancer screening, GOP congresswomen condemned a government-funded study Wednesday and suggested it was a preview of what to expect from Democratic health care reform.

Led by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., six Republican congresswomen told reporters that the guidelines, published Monday by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, send the wrong message.

The task force, an independent body of health professionals funded by the government, rocked the medical community this week by questioning the necessity of annual mammograms for women over 40 as well as self-exams to detect breast tumors. The study has drawn criticism from lawmakers in both parties and illustrates the increasing politicization of health policy.

“Especially as we have been debating health care reform in America, it is concerning to us that these recommendations mirror policies in single-payer nations like England, where women over 50 are invited once every three years to be screened,” McMorris Rodgers said.

She said the timing of the study “was very curious to me.” She said she saw it as “an example of how government-run decisions could be made.”

Insurance providers have raced to clear up questions about the study’s implications. A spokesman for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the Medicare and Medicaid programs, said the task force’s study “doesn’t really affect us.”

A spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans said other studies would have to be taken into account before an insurance provider changed its coverage.

Still, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, said she’s concerned that insurance companies will adopt the task force’s recommendation that women delay mammograms until age 50 and have them every other year.

“This is about cost of medicine; this is not about how you save a life,” Schmidt said.

The 16 members of the panel, none of whom was appointed during the Obama administration, say the benefits of screening women in their 40s are outweighed by the costs, such as anxiety, radiation exposure and unnecessary tests and procedures due to erroneous mammogram results. The study found it would take 1,904 screenings of women in their 40s to save one life but only 1,339 screenings of women in their 50s to save a life.

The chairman of the group, Ned Calonge, denied that the health care reform debate or cost played a role in the drafting the guidelines, the Washington Post reported.

Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said in a statement he still recommends annual mammograms after age 40. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Scientific Advisory Board noted that there has been a longstanding debate over when to begin screening and recommended that individuals and their doctors make the decision.

But the Republican women said that if a large bureaucracy is created by health care reform, it could use studies like this to limit care.

“We don’t know how far government will go in this bureaucracy, how far the decisions will be taken away from us,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.

A spokesman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said a study doesn’t constitute a “dictatorial rule” for doctors. Nor is the senator concerned that the government will ration care using scientific studies, said her communications director, John Diamond.

“As we read the bill, it’s not going to open the door to government dictating decisions,” Diamond said.

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