By Stephanie B. Goldberg
Thursday, July 20, 2000
Breast cancer patients are now benefiting from a decade of activism, yet rights vary from state to state and Senate action is needed on insurance coverage for low-income women diagnosed with the disease.
A Wisconsin woman with breast cancer recently sued her health maintenance organization, claiming that its inadequate screening procedures caused a potentially fatal delay in her diagnosis.
Whatever the facts of the case, overall, this type of dispute may become increasingly rare. Breast cancer patients' rights are more extensive than ever after more than a decade of advocacy at the national and grass roots level.
Even so, as women are reeling from the shock of a breast cancer diagnosis, they must begin boning up on patients' rights and plotting strategies for getting appropriate medical treatment.
"It can be very taxing when women have bigger battles to fight," says Barbara Ullman Schwerin, a lawyer and director of The Cancer Legal Resource Center in Los Angeles, a source of legal information and advice to cancer patients.
Taxing, yes, but necessary. Dealing with insurers can be delegated to a family member or friend, but getting educated about the illness, treatment options and policy limits is something women must do in order to make informed decisions, adds Schwerin.
Since most policies pay for basic tests, surgery and conventional treatment, coverage disputes generally center on so-called experimental treatments and participation in clinical trials, which can represent a patient's best hope in cases of advanced cancer.
As of January 1999, federal law requires insurance plans that authorize mastectomies to also cover the costs of reconstructive surgery to achieve breast symmetry.
The current Congress is likely to pass the "Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Act" which was approved by the House in May and awaits a Senate vote after receiving the unanimous recommendation of the Finance Committee. The proposed law would provide coverage through state Medicaid programs for low-income women who are diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer through the Centers for Disease Control 50-state free screening program.
At the state level, the rights are more extensive. Some states mandate minimum hospital stays for mastectomy patients, state funding of breast cancer research and screening and mammography insurance coverage. In addition, Florida, Michigan and New York require physicians to inform patients about alternate methods of treatment, along with benefits and risks.
Eight states--Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island and Virginia--have taken the lead in passing laws that require insurance companies to pay for treatment costs associated with participation in clinical trials.
But legislation at the federal level is essential, says Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition in Washington, D.C.
"The issue of clinical trials is a consumer one," says Visco. "Patients who have paid premiums deserve to have their routine patient care costs covered--whether in the clinical trial setting or not. If they don't have this coverage, they are getting short changed on their rights."
The situation was eased for senior citizens on June 7 when President Clinton signed an executive memorandum that reimburses costs for those on Medicare.
Ten states--Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri,