How to win the fight against colorectal cancer

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The dramatic decline in colorectal cancer rates can largely be attributed to the detection of pre-cancerous growths, or polyps, and their removal before they become cancerous. Colonoscopy, one method of colorectal cancer screening, allows for both the removal of these polyps, as well as early detection.  Coverage of colorectal cancer screenings without patient cost-sharing, public awareness campaigns, and the growth of ambulatory surgery centers as cost-effective sites of service for colonoscopy have all served to reduce the toll of this disease.

How do we reduce it further?  By doubling-down on what has already been proven effective.

Regular screenings are the single best way to prevent colorectal cancer, but only one-third of all Americans between the ages of 50 and 75 – those most at risk for the disease – are screened as recommended. As a result, too many people will receive a diagnosis of a potentially deadly disease, which could otherwise have been prevented.

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that if all precancerous polyps were identified and removed before becoming cancerous, the number of new colorectal cancer cases could be reduced by 76 to 90 percent. That’s why we must recommit ourselves to preventive care, and do everything in our power to ensure that any remaining barriers to vital colorectal screenings are eliminated.

One of those barriers is an oversight in existing law that requires some Medicare beneficiaries to pay extra if their physician discovers a potentially precancerous polyp during the colonoscopy and removes it as a preventive measure. Although Medicare coinsurance is waived for colonoscopies, this unfortunate quirk in Medicare policy means that if a polyp is removed during the screening, the procedure is reclassified as therapeutic, and the patent will be forced to pay coinsurance.  As physicians will tell you, this procedure is a vital preventive service and one that has an “A” recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

For those living on a fixed income, the chance of this unexpected cost could prevent them from receiving potentially life-saving screening. That’s why I have proposed legislation (H.R. 1070) to correct this oversight and allow men and women on Medicare to receive these important screenings without risking coinsurance. By removing this financial barrier, we would help increase screening rates and reduce the incidence of colorectal cancer.

What’s more, increasing the rate of preventive screenings could also reduce our deficit and make Medicare more solvent. After all, preventing cancer is much less expensive than treating cancer. It is estimated that $14 billion is spent treating colorectal cancer each year, costs largely borne by taxpayers through the Medicare program. Reducing the rates of colorectal cancer through screening would not only save lives, but would save taxpayers money as well.

This coming Wednesday (March 20), several advocacy and medical groups will work with my office to host a briefing on how to continue driving down colorectal cancer rates. Ensuring that all at-risk Americans receive screenings will require more than just legislation. We must remain committed to raising awareness about preventive care and ensuring that all of us know the facts. Yet policymakers must remain vigilant also, and work to remove all inefficiencies that prevent Medicare beneficiaries from accessing recommended services. With a simple, commonsense piece of legislation, we can reduce the rate of this preventable disease.

Dent is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.