Steve Chapman

One of the ostensible reasons for reforming our health insurance system is the need to halt the growth of spending on medical treatment. So it may be a surprise to learn that in its first major vote on the health care overhaul, the U.S. Senate took a clear and simple position: Cost is no object.

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In November, the United States Preventive Services Task Force, a federally sponsored panel of medical experts, announced that it was recommending against routine mammography among women younger than 50. The proposal, coming amid the health care debate, was taken as a gruesome attempt to sacrifice lives to save pennies.

In fact, cash was not a consideration. The task force's rationale was that the benefits of routine breast cancer screening to women in that age group are insufficient to justify the harms it causes them. Yes, it can be expected to save one life for every 1,904 women aged 40 to 49 who get mammographies, but it also yields false positives, which require additional procedures.

Even when the positives are not false, they often lead to unnecessary treatment -- surgery, radiation and chemotherapy -- for tumors that pose little risk. The panel noted that mammograms often serve only to detect "a slower-growing cancer that would have eventually become clinically apparent but would never have caused death."

There are precedents for medical authorities to conclude that tests are not always worthwhile. Last year, the same agency declined to recommend screening for prostate cancer among men under 75 because "the benefits of screening for prostate cancer are uncertain and the balance of benefits and harms cannot be determined." Few protests were heard.

Nor is it usually considered utterly insane to take costs into account. We could save lives by testing everyone over 55 for diabetes, for example. At more than half a million dollars for every healthy year of life that would be saved, however, we have the good sense not to.

But the mammography recommendation goes against the central premise of both American medicine and the welfare state: more is always better. Many American women, who have been told for years that they need to get regular mammograms starting at 40, are not ready to break with that practice, and our political leaders wouldn't dare suggest they reconsider.

Quite the contrary. The Senate voted to force health insurance companies to offer free mammograms -- no deductibles, no co-payments. The lawmakers also ordered the federal government to completely disregard the task force proposal.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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