Debate rages on over new mammogram guidelines

December 15, 2009

Media coverage and confusion over the guidelines prompted Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, to speak up.

In November, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) released new mammography guidelines that no longer recommended yearly mammograms for all women under age 50 and said women between 50 and 75 need mammograms only every two years instead of annually.

Several doctors and industry groups reacted strongly against the new guidelines.

"The recommendation to change breast screening is a huge step backwards," said Dr. Marisa Weiss, a leading breast oncologist and founder and president of Breastcancer.org., in a statement.

“The American Cancer Society continues to recommend annual screening using mammography and clinical breast examination for all women beginning at age 40,” according to a statement from Otis W. Brawley, M.D., chief medical officer, American Cancer Society. “Our experts make this recommendation having reviewed virtually all the same data reviewed by the USPSTF, but also additional data that the USPSTF did not consider. When recommendations are based on judgments about the balance of risks and benefits, reasonable experts can look at the same data and reach different conclusions.”

Other groups are taking a wait-and-see approach.

A statement from the National Cancer Institute says it “appreciates the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force's careful review and analysis of the evidence regarding breast cancer screening for women at average risk,” and that it’s evaluating its recommendations in light of the guidelines. However, “it's too early for us to make any decisions right now,” according to a statement NCI released.

The media coverage and confusion over the issue prompted Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, to issue her own statement on the guidelines.

“There is no question that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations have caused a great deal of confusion and worry among women and their families across this country,” she said. “The U.S. Preventive Task Force is an outside independent panel of doctors and scientists who make recommendations. They do not set federal policy and they don’t determine what services are covered by the federal government.

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

Several insurance plans have gone on record that they will continue to pay for mammograms for women in their 40s, including Kaiser Permanente, Aetna, Cigna, Geisinger Health Plan, Group Health Cooperative and WellPoint.