Albany, N.Y. As the economy falters and more people go without health insurance, low-income women in at least 20 states are being turned away or put on long waiting lists for free cancer screenings, according to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.
In the unofficial survey of programs for July 2008 through April 2009, the organization found that state budget strains are forcing some programs to reject people who would otherwise qualify for free mammograms and Pap smears. Just how many are turned away isn’t known; in some cases, the women are screened through other programs or referred to different providers.
“I cried and I panicked,” said Erin LaBarge, 47. This would have been her third straight year receiving a free mammogram through the screening program in St. Lawrence County. But the Norwood, N.Y., resident was told she couldn’t get her free mammogram this year because there isn’t enough money and she’s not old enough.
New York used to screen women of all ages, but this year the budget crunch has forced them to focus on those considered at highest risk and exclude women under 50.
“It’s a scary thought. It really is,” said LaBarge, who fears she’s at a higher risk because her grandmother died of breast cancer.
The Cancer Society doesn’t have an estimate for what percentage of breast cancer diagnoses come from mammogram screenings, but says women have a 98 percent survival rate when breast cancer is caught early, during stage I. That shrinks to about 84 percent during stages II and III, and just 27 percent at stage IV — when cancer has reached its most advanced point.
“I already know there are women who are dying whose lives we could have saved with mammography and other detections,” said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the society.
In New York, the Cancer Society says providers in Manhattan, Brooklyn and western Queens, and in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties project they’ll perform nearly 15,000 fewer free mammograms for the fiscal year ending April 2010, compared with the previous year.
The Cancer Society has no way to count how many women are being turned away, and many providers don’t keep track of how many are denied screening, or whether those women find another alternative. The cost of screening varies, but the average mammogram is about $100, while a Pap screen can range between $75 and $200, according to the society.
At least 14 states cut budgets for free cancer screenings this year: Colorado, Montana, Illinois, Alabama, Minnesota, Connecticut, South Carolina, Utah, Missouri, Washington, Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Arkansas.