Some lawmakers make personal pitch to oppose new breast-cancer screening guidance

Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida, speaks at the DNC's Leadership Forum Issues Conference in Washington, DC, on September 19, 2014.


Last Updated May 7, 2015 4:42 PM EDT

Congresswomen who have survived breast cancer are taking issue with new recommendations by an independent task force that advises against women younger than 50 receiving annual mammograms.

"As a young survivor of breast cancer who was diagnosed at age 41, I am a living testament to the importance of breast cancer awareness in young women," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida said in a statement opposing the new screening guidances.

Wasserman Shultz, along with 61 other legislators, penned a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell asking the department to ignore the new draft guidance by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The recommendations, released in April by the independent panel of health experts, say that breast cancer screenings benefit some women in their 40s, but not all.

If the Department of Health and Human Services agrees with the recommendations of the independent task force, legislators fear that insurers could drop their coverage for annual mammograms for women aged 40-49 -- coverage currently mandated for many insurance plans.

"The impact of impaired access to breast cancer screening would affect all U.S. women, particularly those in underserved communities who are hardest hit by the disease," the legislators' letter read.

The non-governmental panel's report cited the probability of false-positive results, over-diagnosis, and "unnecessary earlier treatment" as reasons for their opposition to the exams for younger women.

But lawmakers believe that the benefits far outweigh the risks.

"It is imperative that no one limits the insurance coverage of preventative options for young women, especially if they have an elevated risk," Wasserman Shultz said.

"As a breast cancer survivor, I personally understand the importance of preventive care to make sure more women can avert this disease or at least detect it early on," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, added. "Over the past several decades, deaths from breast cancer have dropped dramatically because of early detection through cancer screenings. We can save even more lives by making sure every woman has access to affordable coverage that includes breast screenings without copay."

Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, also signed on to the letter.

"My wife Wendy lost her mother to breast cancer when she was just 6. Her loss serves as a continual reminder to our family, including our three daughters, of the real threat of this disease," Vitter said. "Given the widespread risk of breast cancer, we shouldn't let bureaucrats in Washington limit access to prevention and early detection resources. These decisions should be left to women and their doctors."

Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski has also penned a letter to Secretary Burwell last month, saying that the new recommendation is "short-sighted" and "threatens to erode the mammogram benefit in current law."

Update: This post has been clarified to more accurately reflect the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations on breast cancer screening.