Cancer-prevention measures win legislative approval

Alaska bar patrons will see new signs warning about the link between alcohol and cancer, and women at elevated risk for breast cancer will no longer have to pay extra money for more detailed examinations that go beyond routine mammograms, if bills passed by the Legislature are signed by the governor.

Both measures were proposed initially in stand-alone legislation but wound up combined with related bills that passed late in the session and now await the governor’s decision.

The proposal for signs warning about the alcohol-cancer link was originally in a bill sponsored by Anchorage Rep. Andrew Gray. It was later bundled with a different alcohol-related measure, House Bill 189, that would allow workers between the ages of 18 and 21 to serve alcohol.

That underlying bill, sponsored by Wasilla Rep. Jesse Sumner, was seen as important to restaurants and other businesses coping with a labor shortage.

Gray, a physician assistant, introduced his bill to raise public awareness about how alcohol consumption increases cancer risks. While surveys show that public awareness of the connection is low, cancer experts say alcohol consumption ranks near the top of modifiable cancer-causing behaviors and conditions, along with the better-known factors of tobacco use and obesity.

Legislative approval of the alcohol-cancer signs was approved narrowly.

Gray’s legislation was crafted so that only one new sign would be required at each establishment.

The House passed the amendment inserting it into Sumner’s underlying bill on May 6 by the narrowest of margins, 21-19.

Sumner’s bill was important to the business community, Gray said, even if that community “may not have been very amenable to my bill,” which might cause people to buy less alcohol.

“In a way, this was probably the only vehicle to get this legislation across the finish line,” he said.

Gray, on the day after the session ended, praised and thanked Sumner.

“There are certain brave people who are willing to think for themselves, regardless of how the party may view their actions. So I think Jesse Sumner is a conservative politician, but he is absolutely willing to be independent from the party. And that’s what I needed. Because this is not partisan policy; this is just good health policy,” he said.

As with the alcohol-cancer signage proposal, there had been a standalone bill concerning diagnostic breast examinations.

That measure, House Bill 285, was introduced by Anchorage Rep. Zack Fields, after he and others were contacted about the issue by the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

As introduced by Fields, the bill aimed to bar private insurers from requiring patients to chip in for the costs for diagnostic mammograms, which are often required after routine mammograms show trouble spots, or other advanced examination technology such as magnetic resonance imaging, known as MRI, or ultrasounds

It is estimated that 15% of women are at high enough risk for breast cancer that they need the more advanced screenings, Fields said. Ultrasounds are also sometimes used to detect breast cancer in men.

That bill wound up being folded into a different health-insurance measure, Senate Bill 134, that concerned insurance data privacy.

While routine mammograms are fully covered by insurers, a requirement under the Affordable Care Act, the more detailed diagnostic examinations can be costly to patients. Often, the costs of copayment for such screening can be seen as prohibitive, discouraging many patients from getting them, according to Fields.

A study published in 2019 by the Susan G. Komen Foundation found that nationally, the median out-of-pocket costs range from $234 for a diagnostic breast mammogram to more than $1,000 for an MRI.

With passage of Senate Bill 134, Alaska joins the majority of U.S. states that have enacted or are considering legislation barring private insurers from charging co-payment fees for diagnostic breast examinations.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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