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Cervical Cancer Screening Options Expand in the US

More Action Needed to Address Racial Disparity in Cervical Cancer Deaths

The announcement from the task force gives more choices for detecting potential cancer cells. © iStock

Black women in the United States are more than twice as likely to die from cervical cancer – a preventable disease – as white women. Yesterday, health insurance coverage for a comprehensive cervical cancer screening strategy was expanded. But will it help address this disparity?

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent panel of private-sector medical experts appointed by the government, plays a big role in determining what health insurance covers. Among other responsibilities, the government-funded entity makes recommendations about preventive services.

Since 2012, the recommended standard of care for women ages 30 to 65 has been a Pap test every three years or “co-testing”– a joint test for the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is linked to cervical cancer, and a Pap test – every five years. Yesterday, the task force added high-risk HPV tests, which identify the strains of HPV that are most likely to cause cervical cancer, to its recommendations, meaning that most health plans will have to cover it without co-pay. Women won’t have to pay out of their own pocket.

Providing options to providers and women is overall a good thing. However, it’s not enough to address the US’s cervical cancer problem. Screenings, while necessary, will not prevent a single cervical cancer death unless women have access to further diagnostic follow up and treatment.

Women of color in particular struggle to access the life-saving care they need once they receive an abnormal screening. The Jeanette Acosta Invest in Women’s Health Act of 2018, which is being reviewed by committees in the US House and Senate, aims to address these disparities. Named after a former Hill staffer who lost her battle with cervical cancer last year at age 32, this bill would, among other things, help fund programs that expand access to cervical cancer screening and follow-up for low-income and uninsured women.

This week’s announcement from the task force gives more choices for detecting potential cancer cells. But detection has to be coupled with follow-up care to save lives. Passing the Jeanette Acosta Invest in Women’s Health Act could be a significant next step. 

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