Senate Affirms Screening Mammography for 40-Year-Olds

An amendment to the proposed health care bill contradicts recent guidelines.

ByABC News
December 3, 2009, 6:25 PM

Dec. 3, 2009— -- After a slow start to floor debate on the healthcare reform bill, senators approved an amendment on Thursday that would require health insurers to cover mammograms for women ages 40 to 49.

In a 61-to-39 vote, the Senate dealt a significant blow to the power and credibility of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), by essentially deciding to disregard the task force's recent recommendation that women under 50 shouldn't undergo routine mammograms.

The bipartisan amendment, sponsored by Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), would increase coverage and eliminate copays for more women's preventive services than was contained in the underlying bill.

Snowe, two other Republicans, and the two independents joined the Democrats in voting for the amendment.

But it was an amendment to that amendment that trumped the USPSTF's latest recommendations. Late Wednesday, senators quietly approved, without a roll-call vote, an amendment to Mikulski's amendment offered by David Vitter (R-La.).

The Vitter amendment specifically set aside the most recent USPSTF guidelines, noting that "those issued in or around November 2009" were not to be used in determining coverage requirements.

The USPSTF recommendations on any given procedure are important because the healthcare reform bill that was passed by the House and the bill being considered by the Senate would require insurance companies to cover all medical services that receive a grade of "A" or "B" from the USPSTF.

In its recent recommendations, the task force downgraded mammography in women under 50 to a "C" grade, which means there is limited evidence to support its use.

That would mean that insurance plans wouldn't be required to cover screening mammography for those women, unless the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) used her discretionary power to require plans to cover services with lower grades.

The Vetter amendment to Mikulski's amendment would make the USPSTF's 2002 guidelines, which gave a "B" grade to screening mammography in women ages 40 to 49, the operative ranking -- thus requiring their coverage, without a copay.