Oropeza’s legacy: Breast screening clinic will reopen

Less than two months after Sen. Jenny Oropeza passed away, $20 million in state and federal money has been allocated to reopen a free breast cancer screening clinic she had fought to keep open.

The Every Woman Counts program, started in 1991, served over 350,000 Californians living either below or at the federal poverty line before a funding shortage prompted Gov. Schwarzenegger to put a six-month freeze on the program and bump the eligibility age from 40 to 50 years old at the beginning of the year.

In response, Oropeza introduced a bill, SB 836, that reversed these policy changes by ending the program’s freeze and opening its eligibility to include women, men, and transgender patients 40 years and older.

The bill also called for an undisclosed amount of general fund monies upward of $40 million, according to the bill’s senate analysis. It also projected that the state’s costs could increase “substantially” once women diagnosed with breast cancer were referred to the Department of Health Services for subsidized treatment.

Schwarzenegger’s changes held strong over the summer and were actually extended during the infamous 100-day budget impasse. The program was originally scheduled to reopen enrollment on July 1, 2010 but was then rescheduled to go through Jan. 1, 2011. A slew of breast cancer screening clinics were forced to close throughout the summer and into the fall.   

When the budget did pass, it included $20 million for the Department of Public Health to reinstate the program and expand its eligibility age from 50 to 40 years old. It also stopped payments to health care providers for tracking women who test negative for breast cancer. At $50 each, stopping these payments freed up $14 million within the EWC program budget, explained Finance Department spokesman H.D Palmer.

“Every Woman Counts relies on three sources: tobacco tax, federal, and state funds,” said Al Lundeen, spokesman for the Department of Public Health.
The federal funds are finite, according to Oropeza’s bill analysis.

“Tobacco taxes have declined in the last 18 months or so. Demand for the program (EWC) has gone up. Revenue has been declining. This has created a very precarious situation,” said Lundeen.

Will Gov. Schwarzenegger’s special session budget cuts to health care put the program back in danger?

“There is absolutely nothing in the special session that will affect the Every Woman Counts program,” said Palmer.  

But if Gov. Schwarzenegger is successful at trimming $7 billion in health and social services from the budget, including significant cuts to Medi-Cal, during this week’s special session, women who are diagnosed with breast cancer by the EWC program may run into a dead end when they turn to the Department of Health Services for treatment.

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