Calif. Stops Funding Mammogram Screenings for Poor

February 8, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
There is a new fight to protect women from a deadly disease. Cuts in state funding are leaving tens of thousands of women unable to get early detection for breast cancer, but now there is a large push to expand the availability of mammograms.

Doctors say early detection is important to battling breast cancer, but money troubles could mean it is too late for many poor women.

These women know a bake sale cannot possibly make up for the millions of dollars in lost funding to the Every Woman Counts Program, but they held one anyway.

They are upset the state has temporarily shut the door to uninsured, low-income women who need free mammograms.

"The safety net promised by our government is no longer there. There is no place to go," says Donna Sanderson from Susan G. Komen For the Cure.

Last month, California froze the program, preventing new patients from enrolling for six months. However, starting in July, the state is raising the age for women eligible for breast cancer screenings from 40 years old to 50 -- a move that could deny or delay services to approximately 100,000 women.

Breast cancer survivor, Carolyn Dyson, says that is dangerous because she was diagnosed in her early 40's under the Every Woman Counts Program.

"Early Stage 1. Early Stage 1. I say all the time, that program saved my life," says Dyson, a breast cancer survivor from Vallejo.

Critics worry women of color would be most impacted because the American Cancer Society found, on average, their breast tumors are detected much later than those in white women.

At a hearing delving into the crisis, the Schwarzenegger administration says it did not cut the funding. Every Woman Counts relies mostly on a tobacco tax and smoking is at an all-time low in California at 12 percent.

"It is primarily funded by tobacco revenues which because of our great success in the tobacco control program, has continued to be a diminishing source of resources for the program," says California Public Health director Mark Horton.

Plus, the free screenings have seen 20 percent growth in each of the last two years during this recession as women lose their health coverage with their job. It is unclear how much longer the program can go.

"If this program goes away and it's not available for other women like it was for me, we're going to lose a lot of lives in California," says Dyson.

Every Woman Counts helped 310,000 Californians last year. One idea is to take the other tobacco tax, which is for breast cancer research, and transfer that money to the screening program.

To qualify for the free mammogram program, a household income must be at or below 200 percent of the poverty guideline. Currently the annual income for a household of one cannot exceed $21,660 and a household of eight cannot earn more than $74,020.