Congress Considers Breast Cancer Reform Bills

Photo: Congress hopes to battle Breast CancerABC News Photo Illustration

Sponsors of several House bills focused on breast cancer today urged support for the legislation, bolstering their appeals by repeating the frightening death statistics and recounting harrowing tales of pain and suffering from denied hospital care.

The House subcommittee on Health, Energy and Commerce met today to consider the pending bills in conjunction with Breast Cancer Awareness Month. They would support breast cancer education, encourage efforts to improve diagnosis and help breast cancer victims.

"Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer diagnosed in women," subcommittee chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., acknowledged to the key sponsors of the breast cancer legislation.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., told of a Kansas woman who was only allowed one night in the hospital after a modified radical mastectomy, an Arizona woman who was discharged from the hospital two hours after a double bilateral mastectomy, and another woman not covered for an overnight stay after a mastectomy, who later developed complications from the lack of medical care.

"A member of my staff in Michigan was victim of these unscrupulous policies," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. "She succumbed to cancer. The way the insurance companies treated her was an outrage."

During this 25th annual Breast Cancer Awareness month, Congress is helping to focus on the efforts to stem the deadly disease as it considers the four bills.

DeLauro has introduced HR 1691, the Breast Cancer Patient Protection bill, which would require that after breast surgery, "adequate recovery time in the hospital should not be negotiable."

Her bill does not mandate a 48-hour hospital stay after a mastectomy, but it does insure that the doctor and patient will determine the length, not the insurance company.

DeLauro has 236 co-sponsors for the bill, and enjoys the support of many cancer support organizations, including Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the American Cancer Society, and others. Nearly 24 million people have signed a Lifetime Television petition calling for the bill to be passed.

With her arms outstretched, DeLauro pleaded for an affirmative vote: "Let's do this. Let's do this for the women of this nation."

Breast Cancer's Wide Scope

More than 192,370 people will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and approximately 40,170 will die of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

"We all know people near and dear to us that have battled breast cancer," Rep. Jerry Nadler said. "My wife is one of them."

The New York Democrat has introduced HR 995, the Mammogram and MRI Availability Act, calling it a "common sense" bill to insure yearly mammograms for women at high risk, and to guarantee "life saving screening exams."

A National Cancer Institute study from 2005 confirmed that mammograms contributed to a "pronounced drop in the number of breast cancer deaths, since they detect tumors at their earliest stages."

"Prevention measures likely to be included in the final health care reform package do not include coverage for MRIs for high risk women," Nadler said.

Some House committee members talked of cancer affecting them personally, including Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., who said, "My mother turns 89 today. She is a 35-year cancer survivor."

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death of women in the United States and the leading cause of death for women 40-49.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who self-diagnosed a lump at age 41, only six weeks after being given a clean bill of health after a mammogram, has introduced HR 1740 Breast Cancer Education and Awareness, The EARLY Act.

The bill would promote a public health campaign to teach young women that breast cancer is not an old woman's disease. Every witness testified to an urgent need to educate young women. Each year 24,000 women under 45 are diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States.

Victims Share Their Personal Battles

Wasserman Schultz said early education is particularly important because "young women's cancers are generally more aggressive, are diagnosed at a later stage and result in higher mortality rates."

Many in the committee room noted Wasserman Schultz's personal battle with breast cancer and her efforts on behalf of the bill.

When Pallone said he hoped to "move on the legislation," Wasserman Schultz responded, "I've been a legislator for a long time, and any which way this bill becomes law is fine with me."

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., sponsored HR2279, Eliminating Disparities in Breast Cancer Treatment Act to assure all women "receive the best modern care for breast cancer."

She said the bill was necessary because minority groups -- especially African Americans, Latinas, Asian Americans and American Indians -- often do not receive vital breast cancer screening.

"Ten percent of African American women were less likely to get screening to see if cancer had spread to lymph nodes," she said.

"It will save lives, save money and it will save heartache," she said of the bill.

But some Republicans questioned whether the bills were necessary. Rep Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., said that deaths from breast cancer had dropped more than 2 percent since 1990 due to early detection, which denotes "our health care system is the best in the world."

He said the bills need to be looked at in context with the federal health care reform proposals.

All the women legislators at today's session wore something pink, a dress, a suit or a blouse, in solidarity with cancer victims. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., noted the visual and apologized for not observing the color code.

"I'm embarrassed that I am not wearing pink, but I am turning pink with embarrassment," he said. "That will have to do."