Budget cuts mean fewer mammograms for uninsured women

Sammy Caiola

The Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program is now feeling the effects of the budget cuts that Gov. Pat Quinn made last July, causing the program to reduce the number of routine mammograms provided for uninsured women statewide.

There are 17 sites that previously provided free mammograms for all uninsured women but now have to work from a priority list, said Shannon Lightner, deputy director for the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Office of Women’s Health.

The new system, implemented Feb. 16, prioritizes women 50 or older who have never been tested, women with symptoms of breast cancer and women who are in the process of being diagnosed. Women who don’t meet this criteria are put on a waitlist and are pulled for routine screening after the priority list has been served, Lightner said.

Mammograms help detect breast cancer in its early stages, significantly increasing the chances of survival, Lightner added.

“What we don’t want to see happening is women waiting on a list to get a routine mammogram, and then while they’re waiting get a lump,” she said. “Later they’ll be more expensive to treat and their chances of survival will be lower.”

The program has been running out of funding due to cuts in the state’s 2012 fiscal year budget, Lightner said. In the fiscal year 2011, the program had $21 million – $14.5 million of which came from the state and $6.6 million from federal funding. This year, the program only has about $20 million, according to Lightner.

Lightner does not expect funding to be restored soon.

“It’s not a fun situation to be in,”‘ she said. “We’re looking at next year’s proposed budget, and we might have to have priority lists throughout the whole state. If we have to cut more women from the program, it will be devastating.”

The reduction of mammogram funding is just a small piece of a wider trend, said Lisa Currie, director of health promotion and wellness at Northwestern. Currie said a lot of recent legislative decisions, including recent attempts in the U.S. House of Representatives to restrict funding for Planned Parenthood, could be considered “anti-woman” because they limit women’s access to reproductive health care.

“It sends a signal,” she said. “This is a concern not just for breast cancer, but for other women’s health issues. If we’re seeing services being cut to women that are critical for our healthcare, that’s a problem.”

Currie said changes in mammogram accessibility are not necessarily relevant to students, since women typically do not get tested at such a young age. However, if a young woman has a history of breast cancer in her family, the staff at health services can help direct her to the nearest mammogram location, which she said is probably Evanston Hospital.

Weinberg sophomore Christine Smith said she believes the funding cuts will ultimately be harmful. Smith serves as Zeta Tau Alpha’s philanthropy chair and helps organize the sorority’s breast cancer fundraisers.

“Breast cancer affects women from all social classes, and no woman should live in fear of not having access to life-saving cancer screenings,” Smith said. “It would be a step in the wrong direction if these resources became less attainable.”

Andy Buchanan, manager of public relations for NorthShore University HealthSystem, said the organization has not been significantly affected by the cutbacks, since most of its visitors are insured.

[email protected]northwestern.edu