New York Times: Senate Blocks Use of New Mammogram Guidelines

The Senate on Wednesday night agreed to bar the federal government from relying on the findings of an independent panel of health experts that recently recommended women should begin having routine mammograms at age 50 rather than at age 40.

Without a vote, the Senate agreed to accept an amendment to the big health care legislation proposed by Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, effectively requiring the federal government to ignore the new recommendations by the expert panel, the United States Preventive Services Task Force.

As now written by the Democrats, the health care legislation would generally require insurers to cover preventive screenings and treatments recommended by the task force, including mammograms.

Mr. Vitter’s amendment specifically directed the government to set aside the task force’s most recent recommendations regarding mammograms.

His amendment states that for purposes of the health care legislation and any other provision of law, “the current recommendations of the United States Preventive Services Task Force regarding breast cancer screening, mammography and prevention shall be considered the most current other than those issued in or around November 2009.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, had proposed a broader amendment on women’s health care issues that included the same requirement but specifically focused on the potential use of the task force recommendations in regard to insurance coverage.

Her amendment states:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary shall not use any recommendation made by the United States Preventive Services Task Force to deny coverage of an item or service by a group health plan or health insurance issuer offering group or individual health insurance coverage or under a Federal health care program (as defined in section 1128B(f) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C.1320a–7b(f))) or private insurance.

Ms. Murkowski’s amendment was defeated on Thursday afternoon by a vote of 59 to 41.

From 2002 until last month, the task force had recommended annual mammograms for women beginning at age 40.

Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, in a speech on the Senate floor, said that his wife’s life was saved by a mammogram in her 40s, which detected breast cancer.

“I don’t not want a government bureaucrat making a decision for the women of America, if they should be allowed to have screening mammograms,” Mr. Barrasso said.

An alternative amendment by Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, which was approved by the Senate on Thursday, would allow doctors to determine whether mammograms are medically necessary and would require insurance companies to cover the procedure if needed. Mr. Vitter’s amendment and Ms. Mikulski’s proposal do not contradict each other.

Mr. Vitter’s amendment became the first change to the Democrats’ health care bill approved by the Senate, though it was done by a unanimous consent agreement and without a vote. Until Thursday, Democrats and Republicans had been at a stalemate over when to begin votes on amendments to the larger health care measure.

Source: By David M. Herszenhorn. Originally published by the New York Times on December 03, 2009