With Breast Cancer Awareness month behind us, it is vital that we continue to remain aware of the importance of early detection of breast cancer to save lives. About one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. This is far too many.
As the executive director of Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center, I know firsthand the challenges that women diagnosed with breast cancer face; worrying about how to pay for cancer treatment should not be part of the equation. We screen hundreds of clients every year and while we are committed to serving Maine women regardless of income level or ability to pay we know that having access to comprehensive health insurance coverage improves a woman’s ability to detect and treat breast cancer.
Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate — it affects all women regardless of their income, age, or employment, and whether or not they have health insurance. But women who have insurance and the means to see their doctor regularly for breast exams and mammograms fare much better. According to the National Women’s Law Center’s “Mind the Gap” report from January 2014, women with low incomes without health coverage are more likely to go without care because of cost and are less likely to have a regular source of medical care. They are also less likely to get preventive services that keep them healthy. Only 50 percent of uninsured women in Maine received a recommended mammogram compared to 78 percent of insured women. Perhaps most striking, as reported in 2012 by the American Journal of Managed Care, uninsured women diagnosed with breast cancer are 2.5 times more likely to have a late-stage diagnosis than women with coverage.
While there are some subsidized programs available to help some women with breast cancer screening and treatment, it’s just not enough for women lacking insurance coverage. Fortunately, there is a solution to helping more Maine women access cancer screenings like mammograms, and it is a simple one. The option to accept federal funds set aside to cover more low-income Maine people with Medicaid (MaineCare here in Maine) remains open. Since Jan. 1 of this year, Maine has lost more than $267 million in federal funds — that’s $900,000 a day and counting — that would have come to our state. Maine is the only state in New England that hasn’t accepted these funds, and the consequences are putting Maine women’s health at risk.
It’s a no-brainer for our politicians to decide to plant pink tulips and wear pink ribbons to show their support for breast cancer awareness during the campaign season. When it’s time to stand up for women’s health and make the choice to accept federal funding that will provide coverage to uninsured Maine women and save lives, the decision should be just as easy.
As a health care provider, our focus is on ensuring patients have access to high-quality care. Unfortunately, like many other providers in our region, Maine’s failure to close the coverage gap for people who aren’t eligible for subsidies and can’t afford coverage in the health insurance marketplace also has an impact on the center’s financial sustainability.
At Mabel Wadsworth Center, we offer the GAP program (reduced fees) to help uninsured women access the care they need but we have limited resources to do so. Hospitals and community health centers in our region also face the financial challenges that come with providing care for people in need. With recent cuts to MaineCare and the failure to accept federal funds to expand coverage to people with low incomes, our entire health care system is in jeopardy.
However, it’s not too late to change course. The federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of covering many people who will be newly eligible through 2016 and will continue to pay for most of those costs (no less than 90 percent) thereafter. We just have to say “yes.”
Wearing a pink ribbon and reminding your loved one to get a mammogram won’t matter if she can’t afford the cost of the test. Let’s honor the women in our lives by calling on Maine’s leaders to accept the federal funds to provide coverage to more people through MaineCare, so that all women in Maine can get the recommended preventive screenings and other care they need to stay healthy.
Maine women deserve so much more than pink tulips. We all do.
Ruth L. Lockhart is executive director of Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center in Bangor.