Republicans say advice against mammograms could lead to rationing health care

By From News Services
Thursday, December 3, 2009

Republican lawmakers pressed their case Wednesday that new U.S. recommendations advising against routine mammograms for women in their 40s could be used to ration health care under reform legislation before Congress, a charge Democrats denied.

The guidelines, issued Nov. 16 by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a federal scientific advisory panel, scaled back recommendations for annual mammograms to screen for breast cancer in women in their 40s with an average risk for the disease.

Many groups, including the American Cancer Society, said they will stick with their current recommendations of starting annual mammogram screening at 40 because the breast X-rays have been proven to save lives by detecting tumors early, when they are most easily treated.

At a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on health, members of the task force acknowledged that their description of the new guidelines might have been "poorly worded," leading people to think they were suggesting that screenings were unneeded for any patients in their 40s.

"Many women will decide to have mammogram screening at age 40," said Diana Pettiti, a doctor and vice chairman of the task force. "The task force supports those decisions. The task force communication was poor."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a prepared statement he has "no doubt" the panel was "driven by science and by the interpretation of science -- and not by cost or insurance coverage or the ongoing health-reform debate."

He added: "I also am confident that these recommendations are just that -- recommendations -- and that the Task Force would not expect them to be used to take the place of a considered opinion of a physician or patient."

Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) argued that under Democratic health-care legislation passed by the House, the task force could determine what preventive services would be covered.

"To have a task force make the recommendation that has been made, and to have in this bill the authority that's given to various unelected bureaucrats to make health-care decisions, including coverage frequency, in my opinion, is wrong," Barton said.

The Senate is debating its version of reform legislation. The chamber's debate stalled on the floor Wednesday as Democrats blamed Republicans for blocking votes on the first two amendments.

Still pending as of midafternoon was a bipartisan proposal to increase preventive health care for women and a Republican bid to strip out significant Medicare cuts. Both were offered Monday, but Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has been unable to reach an agreement on votes with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Staff reporter Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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