Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on November 18 reaffirmed the agency's backing for the younger screening age. She was responding to a controversy that erupted on November 17, when the USPTSF announced in an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine that it had changed its guidelines to advise that women not begin screening until the age of 50 and, at that age, undergo the test every other year rather than annually.
Medicare currently pays for screening mammograms once every 12 months, beginning at age 40.
The new recommendation has caused confusion and worry, according to Sebelius, who took care to distance HHS from the USPSTF.
"The U.S. Preventive [Services] 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," she said. "There has been debate in this country for years about the age at which routine screening mammograms should begin, and how often they should be given. The Task Force has presented some new evidence for consideration, but our policies remain unchanged."
Sebelius said she would be surprised if private insurance companies changed their mammography coverage decisions as a result of the USPSTF's recommendations, and she encouraged American women to continue talking with their doctors about their individual breast cancer risk.
"My message to women is simple. Mammograms have always been an important lifesaving tool in the fight against breast cancer, and they still are today," Sebelius said. "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."
Experts question motives of mammogram guidelines, November 17, 2009
USPSTF ups mammography screening age to 50, November 16, 2009
JAMA editorial raises questions about breast, prostate screening, October 22, 2009
Shock and awe over JAMA editorial, October 22, 2009
'Spontaneous regression' debate erupts anew at ASCO symposium, October 12, 2009
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