By TINA IRGANG
WASHINGTON (Dec. 5, 2009) - Women would have free and widespread access to preventive screenings, such as mammograms and pap smears, under an amendment to the Senate health bill approved Thursday.
The measure, introduced by Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, passed 61 to 39. Mikulski's amendment is the first addition to the Senate's health care bill adopted on the floor. It was debated along with another women's health amendment introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. The Murkowski amendment was defeated 41 to 59.
"We are proud to have Senator Mikulski represent the women of Maryland and the country," said Leni Preston, co-chairwoman of The Maryland Women's Coalition for Health Care Reform. "Her amendment is an important step forward in ensuring that women have the preventive services that they need."
Holly Joseph of the National Organization for Women's Montgomery County chapter called the amendment's passage "a positive step." She said it would go some way toward alleviating fears that mammograms might not be covered by future health care plans. Those fears were raised by the recent controversial U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations, which suggested fewer mammograms for women over 50, and none for women under 50.
Mikulski's amendment gained the support of several senators whose vote on the final bill is considered uncertain, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Snowe co-sponsored the Mikulski amendment and also backed Murkowski's proposal.
In a two-hour debate before both votes, Mikulski and other Democratic senators laid out the details of the successful proposal.
"My amendment makes universal access to preventive screenings for women available," Mikulski said. "We don't mandate that you get a service. We leave that up to a decision made with the woman and her doctor, but first of all you need to be able to have a doctor."
Her proposal and the underlying bill, Mikulski said, would fix two major problems: the inability of many women to afford health insurance coverage, and the inability to pay for preventive screenings.
The key provision of the amendment seeks to eliminate co-payments and deductibles on those procedures recommended by the Health Resources and Services Administration, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Maryland's junior Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin also backed the proposal.
"This is a very important point to provide preventive services to the women of America and to have a health care system that is fair," Cardin said.
Republican senators said the Mikulski amendment could leave coverage and treatment decisions up to government task forces. Several mentioned the recent mammogram recommendations by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
"I do not want a government bureaucrat making a decision for the women of America if they should have screenings," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. Barrasso said his wife's breast cancer was detected early through a mammogram she underwent in her 40s.
Democrats countered that the Republicans' proposal would have left coverage decisions up to insurance companies rather than mandating coverage for preventive screenings.
After the final vote on both measures, Mikulski issued a statement saying that despite the adoption of her amendment, "with votes on the final legislation ahead, the fight's not over yet."
"Women can count on me to keep fighting for them on the Senate floor and all the way to the White House to end punitive insurance company practices that treat simply being a woman as a pre-existing condition."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.