Sebelius: U.S. policy on mammograms ‘unchanged’

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009 3:31 PM

A top Obama administration official on Wednesday appeared to try to distance the federal government from controversial new guidelines recommending fewer women routinely undergo mammograms to screen for breast cancer.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in a written statement, said the new guidelines had "caused a great deal of confusion and worry among women and their families across this country" and stressed that they were issued by "an outside independent panel of doctors and scientists who . . . do not set federal policy and . . . don’t determine what services are covered by the federal government."

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a 16-member panel of experts assembled by the Health and Human Services Department’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, on Monday recommended women in their 40s stop having routine mammograms and instead discuss whether to get the exams individually with their doctors. The panel also recommended women in their 50s get mammograms routinely only every two years instead of annually. The panel argued that the benefits of doing the exams more frequently were outweighed by the harms caused by false alarms, which cause anxiety, unnecessary biopsies and sometimes unneeded treatment.

Although hailed by many patient advocates and breast cancer experts, the new guidelines have been harshly criticized by the American Cancer Society, the American College of Radiologists and others, including several members of Congress.

Some have questioned whether the guidelines were related to the health-care reform debate and efforts to save money — claims strongly denied by the task force.

"The task force has presented some new evidence for consideration, but our policies remain unchanged," Sebelius said. "Indeed, I would be very surprised if any private insurance company changed its mammography coverage decisions as a result of this action."

She added: "My message to women is simple. Mammograms have always been an important life-saving tool in the fight against breast cancer and they still are today. Keep doing what you have been doing for years — talk to your doctor about your individual history, ask questions, and make the decision that is right for you."