Senate Approves Plan to Help Women Get Medical Screenings

Washington – The Senate on Thursday approved a plan 61-39 to make it easier for women to get medical screenings aimed at detecting a variety of diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

“We want to be able to save lives and we want to be able to save money,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who sponsored the proposal with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. “We do know early screening and detection does save lives and at the same time, it saves money.”

Debate on her plan — estimated to cost $940 million over 10 years — was an oasis of comity in the four-day-old debate over the Senate Democrats’ plan to overhaul the nation’s health insurance system. The bill, estimated to cost $848 billion over 10 years, would require nearly all Americans to buy health care coverage, and would create a government-run insurance plan to compete with the private sector. States could opt out of the government plan.

So far, progress on the bill has stalled because of sharp disagreements over the public option, as well as over abortion and Medicare savings. A vote is expected later Thursday on a Republican effort to erase more than $400 billion in Medicare savings from the bill.

“These Medicare cuts will impact seniors’ access to quality care. This is a price that Americans should not be asked to pay,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is leading the effort.

Democrats countered that the cuts are meant to improve efficiency, not trim benefits. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., offered an amendment that would assure that the spending cuts would help keep Medicare solvent and lower premiums.

One area where most lawmakers agree, however, is that, as Mikulski put it, “for many insurance companies, simply being a woman is a pre-existing condition.”

Women of child-bearing age now routinely pay more for health care because they’re women. If they’re pregnant, they can be legally denied coverage. Women tend to need more preventive care and therefore are subject to more co-pays and deductibles. In addition, single heads of households are often women, meaning they’re responsible for the family’s health care bills.

The bill would end the practice of basing rates on gender, now allowed in most states. The Mikulski plan, which won support from 56 Democrats, two independents and three Republicans, would make it easier to get preventive care. Two Democrats, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, opposed the amendment.

There would be no co-payments for most screening services, and covered services would include those “supported by” the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration, which works to provide greater access to health care, and Centers for Disease Control.

Covered services are expected to include annual mammograms for women over 50, cervical cancer screenings, pregnancy and postpartum depression screenings, and annual women’s health care screenings.

Such screenings, Mikulski said, are aimed at finding “silent killers that have a lethal effect on women,” such as cardio and vascular diseases.

Opposition came on two fronts. National Right to Life opposed the proposal, warning that because the government would have sweeping authority to define what services are covered, “that authority could be employed in the future to require all health plans to cover abortions.”

Many were also concerned about the government getting heavily involved in health care decisions. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, tried to dilute the government’s power over such matters, but her effort failed 59 to 41.

She would’ve required insurers to consult with professional medical organizations to determine what prevention benefits should be included in health care plans. “Not bureaucrats in Washington,” she said.

The Mikulski plan had strong support from women’s groups as well as influential health care organizations, including the National Organization for Women and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

It also was aided by last month’s controversy over mammograms. A government advisory task force, composed on physicians and scientists, said that women should usually begin routine mammograms after turning 50 rather than in their 40s. It contended that early screening can create false alarms and unnecessary biopsies.

The timing was politically horrendous for Democrats seeking health care legislation; many Republicans charged that such panels would become routine under the health care legislation and lead to rationed care.