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Dems’ Health Bills Would Adopt New Mammogram Guidelines


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (WDCpix)

The Democrats downplaying the gravity of new recommendations for breast cancer screening have left out an inconvenient fact: their health care bills would automatically adopt them.

Both the House and Senate health reform proposals would force insurance plans to follow the new mammogram guidelines for women ages 50 to 74 as part of a minimum swath of services deemed by the legislation to be medically essential. The recommendations were an unexpected wildcard in the middle of an already contentious health reform debate, and they’ve caused Democrats to de-emphasize their significance at the same time that some in the party are calling for a legislative fix to nullify them.

[Congress1]The animated reaction to the recommendations follows several weeks in which women’s reproductive health had been at the forefront of the health reform debate, after the House passed a provision limiting coverage of abortion under private plans. The saga has been a distraction to Democrats as they aim to enact the most sweeping health care reform in generations, and it’s complicated their defense against GOP-fueled charges that their proposals would lead to a rationing of care. House leaders have already passed their version of the bill, but the debate in the Senate is just beginning, with upper-chamber leaders scheduled to vote Saturday on a procedural measure to bring their bill to the floor.

The mammogram episode has also revealed the influence of a previously obscure preventive-medicine panel, raised questions about the effectiveness of the Democrats’ reform proposals to weed out unnecessary medical procedures, and highlighted the potential complications when the entrenched habits of patients and providers are called into question by medical science.

“These new recommendations,” breast cancer specialist David Gorski wrote this week, “are a classic example of what happens when the shades of gray that characterize the messy, difficult world of clinical research meet public health policy, where simple messages are needed in order to motivate public acceptance of a screening test.”

The controversy ignited on Monday, when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a federally appointed panel of independent medical experts, released guidelines suggesting that women should not seek routine mammograms before the age of 50 — 10 years later than current protocols dictate. The task force also concluded that annual mammograms are unnecessary for any age group, suggesting biennial screenings instead.

Critics in Congress and the medical community were quick to pounce, arguing that the recommendations would jeopardize the lives of women, particularly those aged 40 to 49. Democrats moved swiftly to divorce their health reform proposals from the new guidelines, maintaining that they merely represent a non-binding data-bank for lawmakers to consider as they craft coverage policies, both public and private.

“I don’t think there’s any general acceptance of what was proposed,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told NPR Thursday.

“These individuals do not determine federal policy,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) added in a statement. “They have simply made recommendations.”

Yet the health reform language moving through Congress tells a different tale. Both the House and Senate bills create an “essential benefits package” which all insurance plans would have to offer. Neither chamber’s proposal specifies what those services would be, instead, empowering the Department of Health and Human Services to make those decisions at a later date. But the bills do outline broad categories of minimum services, including a mandate to cover those recommendations of the task force rated “A” or “B.” The new biennial-screening guidelines for 50- to 74-year olds are rated “B.”**

The 16 members currently on the panel were all appointed by the Bush administration. None specializes in oncology.

A number of Democrats have blasted the findings. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a breast cancer survivor, said the guidelines are “causing mass confusion” among women accustomed to screening more frequently and earlier in life. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce health subcommittee, has already indicated that he’ll hold a hearing early next month to examine the recommendations. And Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is pushing legislation to require insurance companies that cover diagnostic mammograms also to cover routine, annual mammograms to women beginning at age 40.

“Cancers can progress very far in two years,” Nadler said Friday, criticizing the panel’s recommendation for biennial screenings.

The White House has also been wary, quickly indicating that the new recommendations would have no bearing on public policy. In a statement issued Wednesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius played down the task force as “an outside independent panel of doctors and scientists who make recommendations.”

“They do not set federal policy,” she added, “and they don’t determine what services are covered by the federal government.”

Yet they certainly can have influence. Indeed, in May, when HHS announced the controversial decision not to pay for virtual colonoscopies under Medicare, the agency leaned heavily on the judgments of the Preventive Services Task Force, which had concluded earlier that the radiation risks outweighed the benefits of the less intrusive cancer-detection procedure.

The HHS declined to comment this week on why the agency was so quick to dismiss the panel’s new mammogram recommendations.

By issuing their report in the middle of a contentious debate over health care reform, the task force didn’t do the Democrats any favors. Republicans are already blasting the reform bills for their funding of comparative effectiveness research, which compares different treatments of the same ailment to discover which work best. The critics fear that the effectiveness data could tempt insurers — both public and private — to deny coverage of certain drugs, devices and other treatments. In the eyes of the GOP, the new mammogram recommendations are just another threat to patients’ access to care.

“This is how rationing starts,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Friday. “Delay of care … then denial of care. At first, it’s guidelines, then the insurance companies … adopt those guidelines with respect to coverage decisions.”

Private insurers, for their part, say they often use the task force recommendations to make coverage determinations. But they deny that the mammogram findings will have any effects — at least not immediately. “Whatever we do today, we’ll continue to do — as far as we can tell,” said Gloria Barone, spokeswoman for Cigna.

Susan Pisano, spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry lobby group, pointed out that the task force recommendation against routine screenings for 40-somethings is hardly an outright moratorium, instead leaving the decision to women and their doctors. “I don’t see this as limiting coverage,” Pisano said.

Under Medicaid, states have leeway to set their own coverage rules. Ann Kohler, director of the National Association of State Medicaid Directors, said state officials use the task force guidelines “often.” “However in this case,” she added, “I think they will not change their historical policy.”

Julius Hobson, former lobbyist for the American Medical Association and now a senior policy analyst at the Washington law firm Bryan Cave, suggested that the members of the task force had crunched their numbers without consideration of the broader effects of their recommendations. “They missed the psychological and social impact of what they were saying,” Hobson said.

Their timing, he added, was also a bit suspect. “You’d have to be deaf, dumb, blind and crazy not to know that Congress has spent the whole year working on health reform.”

***Clarification: An early version of this story implied that the recommendations for 40- to 49-year olds would also be adopted by the Democrats bill. That would not be the case. That recommendation is rated “C.” *

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