Free Md. breast exams sought Cancer support groups want screenings for low-income women

November 12, 1997|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Pointing to the success of a free mammogram program that expired in June, advocates for women with breast cancer are calling for a new statewide program that would provide free screenings for poor women across the state.

The effort is being led by a coalition of breast cancer support groups and the American Cancer Society. The coalition argues that the state risks losing ground against breast cancer with the loss of the program, which provided free mammograms to 53,000 women over six years.

"We'd like to see a comprehensive statewide program so everybody can get it in their community, with the proper amount of promotion -- something that would be permanent," said Eric Gally, a spokesman for the Maryland chapter of the American Cancer Society.

Annette Drummond, a breast cancer survivor who chairs the Committee to Restore Mammography Screening Programs in Maryland, said the group is working with the cancer society to propose a permanent system.

That proposal should be ready for the legislative session that begins in January, she said.

The defunct program of free mammograms was started in 1991 by the Maryland Health Services Cost Review Commission, which allowed hospitals to recover the cost of the mammograms by charging other patients a slightly higher amount for procedures.

Through this screening, doctors at 23 participating hospitals detected 420 cancers. Many were detected at an early stage when women stand the best chance of a cure. Officials with the state Health Department said it was too early to say how many of the patients are considered cured.

"The most important intervention we have is to catch cancer at its earliest," said Dr. Wendie Berg, a radiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, which held a briefing on the topic Monday.

The center has continued to offer the free breast cancer screenings.

Over the life of the program, $12 million was spent on mammograms. They were offered to low-income women who lacked insurance or whose insurance did not cover screening mammograms.

The program was designed as a "demonstration project" that would expire but get picked up by hospitals or other private funding sources if it succeeded in providing mammograms to women who otherwise could not afford them. After getting a reprieve two years ago, it was allowed to expire June 30.

UM officials said a new program could be funded with money from the state's general fund, through a tax return checkoff or with pooled donations from private sources. In one type of taxpayer-supported program, the state could mail vouchers to women who meet income-eligibility guidelines.

Since Maryland's program expired, several hospitals have continued to provide the free service by dipping into surplus funds or obtaining private grants.

Others have stopped the program or continued it with restrictions.

Johns Hopkins Hospital continues to provide annual mammograms to women older than age 50 who enrolled in the program when it was funded by the cost review commission. Shut out are newcomers and women ages 40 to 50. However, the hospital has applied for federal money that would allow it to include more women.

Robert Murray, chairman of the cost review commission, said he views the expired program as a success because many hospitals have continued the service in its original form.

Besides the UM Medical Center, others include three hospitals of the Helix Health System -- Union Memorial, Franklin Square and Harbor.

"My understanding is that this turned out to be a success story," Murray said. "It worked out exactly as the commission hoped it would through alternative sources of funding."

A spokeswoman for Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown said yesterday that a private foundation has approved a grant that will allow the facility to continue to provide free mammograms. The screening also will receive money from the hospital's foundation.

However, Gally of the cancer society said the disappearance of the state-sponsored program created an uneven system in which women might not be able to obtain free mammograms depending on where they live.

"This was a public health initiative that was beginning to work," he said. "Stopping it can also have public health repercussions. To push and push and push and then stop, it means that some people will start thinking that maybe it wasn't so important after all."

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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