Health & Medicine

What’s blocking women from timely breast cancer treatment? UCLA study asks lawmakers to eliminate hurdles

Breast cancer survivor, Heather Solari, of Brentwood, wait to speak at a press event to promote California's new Pink Ribbon License plates at the California Automobile Museum in 2015.
Breast cancer survivor, Heather Solari, of Brentwood, wait to speak at a press event to promote California's new Pink Ribbon License plates at the California Automobile Museum in 2015. apayne@sacbee.com

It’s one of the most high-profile, well-funded cancers out there, but breast cancer treatment is still hobbled by obstacles for thousands of California women who get diagnosed each year.

That’s the prognosis by a UCLA research team that cited three main roadblocks: uneven insurance coverage, time limits on treatment programs and language/cultural barriers.

“It surprised us that there still were obstacles to care. … There are barriers that still exist that the health system and policy makers should address,” said Ninez Ponce, associate director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, which released its study Thursday.

Ponce and the study’s co-author AJ Scheitler addressed a state Capitol briefing Thursday to urge lawmakers and health care providers to alleviate some of those roadblocks.

“We need to be sure that every woman has an equal opportunity when facing breast cancer,” said state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento. “The disparities we have in our state and country impact the outcomes when women are facing breast cancer.”

In 2016, about 26,700 California women were expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer and an estimated 4,400 would die from the disease, according to the study.

One of the hurdles identified was the time limit for patients covered under Every Woman Counts, the state Department of Public Health program that provides free breast cancer care for low-income women for up to 18 months after diagnosis. Some women with delays in surgery or recovery have exceeded the program’s time limit and can no longer afford treatment, the study noted.

Pan said he supports extending what he called an “artificial” deadline. “The idea that at 18 months we simply cut you off is just appalling in my mind,” he said. “We all deal with (funding) constraints, but we have to come up with sensible approaches to allow as many women as possible to defeat this terrible disease.”

The study said barriers to care remain even for those who have health insurance. For example, the narrower provider networks set up by some insurance plans limit the pool of doctors and specialists available to patients, the study found.

Cultural barriers were another impediment, according to the the study. Many women cannot easily find breast cancer treatment providers who speak their language, thwarting their ability to understand the technical language or options presented by their physician.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

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