THE DISTRICT government's handling of the federally funded program that screens low-income D.C. women for breast and cervical cancer borders on the criminal. When compared with the 50 states, the nation's capital ranks highest for breast and cervical cancer mortality. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program that provides free cancer education, screening and diagnostic services to poor District women ground to a halt for six months because the D.C. Health Department failed to spend grant money. According to cancer doctors who provide services, the department's failure to do what was required caused more than 400 needy women to go without mammograms and about 450 to forgo Pap smears. Early detection tests are extremely valuable. The cost of not conducting them is incalculable.

D.C. Health Department officials responsible for administering the $1 million federal grant have not explained why they released only $350,000 to the Project WISH (Women Into Staying Healthy) program in December, after the CDC had provided the money in July. Neither is there an adequate explanation for the remaining $650,000, as reported by Post staff writer Avram Goldstein. What is known is that an additional $150,000 to help a committee of cancer experts write a cancer prevention coordination plan has not been spent, and Stephanie Harper, the health department official who oversees the grant, is the subject of sharp criticism for her alleged failure to properly run the program. Two doctors who provide cancer services -- Jeanne Mandelblatt of Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and Donald Henson, co-director of George Washington University's office of cancer prevention and control -- complained in a June 9 letter to Herbert R. Tillery, deputy mayor for operations, about Ms. Harper's "lack of leadership, performance, cooperation and accountability."

The situation, however, is larger than Ms. Harper's performance or lack thereof. The public needs to know how a program so critical to low-income women with little or no health insurance could be allowed to fall into a state of suspended animation for six months without a peep from city officials who are charged with overseeing the Health Department. The CDC has been aware of problems with the grant since October and has been monitoring use of the funds. Can the same be said of the mayor, the city administrator and the D.C. Council committee that oversees health agencies? Or are these officials focused on everything but the dysfunctional health bureaucracy that, through indifference and incompetence, is putting the health of poor people in jeopardy?