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Congresswoman Waters Recognized for Assisting Breast Cancer Survivors

November 12, 2010
Press Release

Congresswoman Maxine Waters' (D-CA) advocacy on health care issues, and her willingness to challenge the health insurance companies, started over thirty years ago.

In 1978, as a young California Assemblywoman – she was first elected in 1976 – Waters fought insurance companies when she introduced AB 3548, legislation requiring insurance companies to cover reconstructive surgery or prosthetic devices for women who have undergone mastectomies.

Waters explains, "A mastectomy is a very serious procedure of course.  It can be frightening for many women, and even as they cope with fears about surviving cancer, they are left with physical scars from having a breast removed and also frequently suffer emotionally from this change in their body, their appearance, their confidence and even their sense of self. These issues continue to be significant today – although society has made a lot of progress and women and their families now have many more resources and information and support than in the 1970s – but I believe it was even more difficult back then."

She was prompted to introduce AB 3548 when she learned from breast cancer patients and survivors, including the wife of a legislator, that some health insurance plans covered mastectomies but wouldn't cover this critical part of post-surgery transition, acceptance, and healing.

"The insurance companies classified reconstructive surgery or a prosthetic device following mastectomy as ‘cosmetic' and ‘elective' and therefore they would not pay for it.  Remember this was more than thirty years ago, so we had to educate a lot of people, including members of the State Assembly and State Senate, about this issue.  Of course most of them were men, and they were not so comfortable discussing it.  But we worked hard to gain support and were able to pass the legislation and make the insurance companies do the right thing.  I thought if we could change the law, we would help a lot of women in California, and given the state's size and influence probably get the insurance companies to change their policies in other states too. At the very least, I thought it would give women recovering from the mastectomy procedure some peace of mind," she remembers.

Waters' legislation passed both chambers of the California Legislature and was signed into law on September 28, 1978.

"The governor who signed it into law then was Jerry Brown," Waters notes.  "He has always paid attention to women's issues and provided progressive leadership," she says of Brown, who was then the youngest governor in California history and this month has been elected to serve as governor again. 

Waters has been recognized as a champion for women's health by various groups, most recently at the annual luncheon of the Persian American Cancer Institute (PACI) in Los Angeles last weekend.

Hoori Sadler, a PACI leader presented an award at the group's Salute to Life event to Congresswoman Waters in recognition of her work to help cancer survivors. Ms. Sadler is a breast cancer survivor who also serves on the board of the Umma Clinic in South Central Los Angeles, a lifeline for thousands of people from all walks of life.  She pointed out that AB 3548 has helped thousands of women over the past thirty years, and she also emphasized that Congresswoman Waters continues to serve as an effective advocate on breast cancer and other women's health issues.

For example, Congresswoman Waters introduced the Cancer Testing, Education, Screening and Treatment Act, known as the Cancer TEST Act (H.R. 1030), in the last Congress to promote cancer screening. H.R. 1030 would:

• Provide grants for cancer screening, counseling, treatment and prevention programs for minorities and underserved communities; 
• And would emphasize early detection and provide comprehensive treatment for cancer in its earliest stages, when treatment is most likely to save lives. 

The bill had 34 cosponsors but did not make it out of committee.  However, Congresswoman Waters pledges to continue to be a strong advocate for early detection and treatment of cancer, and increased education and funding.

"We need increased activism, lobbying of elected officials, research, education, and of course funding, to continue the work of people in this room and the men and women all over this country looking for a cure," she said at the event.

Congresswoman Waters is particularly concerned about health disparities.  "According to the Office of Minority Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cancer is the second leading cause of death for most racial and ethnic minorities in the United States.  So it is a major killer for all population groups, but we know that different populations are impacted by cancer in different ways. Unfortunately, people of color disproportionately suffer from cancer," she said.

In the African American community, for example, although African American women were 10% less likely to have been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, they were 40% more likely to die from the disease, compared to non-Hispanic white women. Stomach cancer also affects different groups differently: Asian American and Pacific Islander men are twice as likely to die from stomach cancer as non-Hispanic white men, and Asian American and Pacific Islander women are 2.7 times as likely to die from stomach cancer.

"We need research to understand how and why this occurs and in turn how we can prevent and treat people to save lives," said Congresswoman Waters.  "In addition, we must be willing to battle the nation's powerful insurance companies for making decisions motivated by profit even at the expense of the wellbeing of their customers.  As we saw over the past year, we had to fight the industry to secure protections for patients so their insurer could not drop them from coverage when they get sick or impose caps on the amount of care that would be covered."