Lawmakers try to restore cancer screening for uninsured women

Megan Baier
Megan Baier

A bill to increase access to breast and cervical exams for underinsured and uninsured women is making its way through the Senate.

The Every Woman Counts (EWC) program provides free breast and cervical exams to women who would otherwise not be able to afford them. The program serves approximately 350,000 low-income women throughout the state each year.

In December 2009 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered major cuts to the program, raising the minimum age for mammograms from 40 years old to 50 year old and freezing enrollment into the program for the first six months of the year.

Because early detection of breast and cervical cancer are vital to patients’ survival, the cuts to the program will likely increase the number of women who die from cancer, according to the authors of the bill, Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa and Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara.

Evans and Nava proposed AB 1640 to overturn the cuts to the program and reinstate health services for poor women. In addition, the bill would provide referrals, treatments, and patient advocacy.

The bill mandates that no more than 10 percent of EWC funds go toward administrative costs. It imposes tighter regulations on the program’s costs in order to rectify past mismanagement.

Supporters of the bill include the American Cancer Society and the Western Center on Law and Poverty. The bill faces no formal opposition but is likely to run into resistance later from the governor’s Department of Finance, which monitors state spending and defends his budget priorities.

An audit conducted by the California State Auditor at the request of Evans and Nava found that the program could redirect some of its federal money from outreach and training to direct services, providing enough funding for about 40,000 extra women to receive exams. But the state Department of Public Health, which administers the program, disagrees. Every year about 25,000 California women get breast cancer and about 4,000 women die each year from the cancer, according to the California Cancer Registry Report. Low-income and minority women are more likely to die from cancer.

The Assembly passed the bill on a vote of 56-12.

“We sent the governor a message that every woman still counts in California,” Evans said in a statement released by her office. “We cannot abandon poor women to die from treatable cancer. Poverty should not be a death sentence.”

But Evans might face more opposition in the state Senate than she did in the Assembly, where colleagues tend to give one another the benefit of the doubt on bills that spend money. A similar bill, SB 836 by Sen. Jenny Oropeza, a Long Beach Democrat, was held up in the Senate Appropriations Committee because of concerns about its cost.

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