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Budget Cuts Mean Fewer Cancer Screenings In Colorado

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(credit: AP)

(credit: AP)

Health Resources

Affordable Care Act Updates: CBSDenver.com/ACA

Health News & Information: CBSDenver.com/Health

DENVER (AP) – It’s a bittersweet day at the Breast Center at St. Joseph Medical Center. Doctors have more money to screen poor women for breast cancer because a new state fiscal year has started, freeing up a state grant program that ran dry last year because of budget cuts.

But this year, instead of running out a few months early, doctors expect to exhaust that grant much sooner, possibly halfway through the fiscal year. That’s because lawmakers last session shaved more than $1.6 million from the Women’s Wellness Connection Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening program, leaving just about $2 million in the fund that goes to clinics.

“This is serious,” warned Dr. Jerome Schroeder, a radiologist at the Breast Center. “Once you start to take away care, especially with a vulnerable population like women without insurance, it takes a lot of effort to get that patient back in the system.”

The Women’s Wellness Connection cut was among many painful decisions made by lawmakers last year to close a shortfall that hovered near a half-billion.

Like most states, Colorado was facing at least the third year of declining tax receipts, and the easy fat had already been cut. Lawmakers were forced to cut money from schools, colleges, parks and other popular programs. A state prison in southeast Colorado is shutting down, and local governments are losing money they count on to pay for things like local roads and sidewalks.

However, health advocates say the cancer-screening and prevention cuts could have deadly and long-term consequences. A legislative analysis prepared about the WWC screening cut predicted more than 5,000 screenings would not be performed, setting up the possibility of roughly 85 missed cancer diagnoses. At St. Joseph’s, hospital administrators say they’ll be able to use WWC funds to pay for about 300 cancer screenings, down from 600 last year.

The state is also cutting more than $10 million from the Cancer Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Disease grant programs, which include colorectal screenings.

Cancer prevention is taking a hit, too. The new state budget trims more than $17 million from the State Tobacco Education and Prevention Program, leaving less than $6 million.

The tobacco prevention cuts will mean that the state QuitLine, a number smokers can call for support, will serve fewer people.

At its height, the QuitLine’s counselor served about 3,000 Coloradans a month, said David Tinkelman, vice president for health initiatives at National Jewish Health in Denver, where the QuitLine is run.

At its height, the QuitLine’s counselor served about 3,000 Coloradans a month, Tinkelman said. This year, it’ll be more like 1,000 a month, as the QuitLine turns away most. The QuitLine now serves only three types of smokers: smokers with Medicaid, those without insurance and pregnant women.

“The last few years, the amount of funding to all tobacco-related prevention efforts has been greatly reduced,” he said.

Lawmakers who made the cuts pointed out that the money trimmed from the cancer programs is still going to health care. Medicaid funding was boosted to account for a surge in patients, so even though Medicaid services were trimmed, too, overall spending on Medicaid is up.

Dana Dzwonkowski of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network in Denver called Medicaid a “black hole” and argued that the state is setting itself up for bigger health bills later by cutting funding for prevention and early intervention.

“We really just don’t have the resources to invest in the long term right now,” she said.

At St. Joseph’s, where Schroeder reviews mammograms, the doctor’s even grimmer about what the cuts mean — more deaths, and more money to treat cancer patients whose diseases weren’t caught early.

“We’re kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul, in my opinion,” Schroeder said.

- By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer

Follow Kristen Wyatt at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt

Links: Women’s Wellness Connection  |  Colorado QuitLine

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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