CHICAGO U.S. health officials on Wednesday distanced themselves from controversial new breast cancer screening guidelines that recommend against routine mammograms for healthy women in their 40s and said federal policy on screening mammograms has not changed.
In a move likely to reassure American women, U.S. House and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that issued the guidelines on Monday does not set federal policy and does not affect what services the government will pay for.
Critics of the new guidelines said they would lead to more cancer deaths and expressed fear insurance companies would use them to justify denying coverage for mammograms to women in their 40s.
"The Task Force has presented some new evidence for consideration but our policies remain unchanged," Sebelius said in a statement.
"Indeed, I would be very surprised if any private insurance company changed its mammography coverage decisions as a result of this action," she said.
The proposed changes address healthy women with an average risk of breast cancer, not women who have a family history of breast cancer or some other special risk.
The guidelines were swiftly rejected by cancer experts, and the American Cancer Society said it would not change its recommendations for routine mammograms starting at age 40.
Recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of experts sponsored by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research, typically set the standard for preventive services in the United States.
"There is no question that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendations have caused a great deal of confusion and worry among women and their families across this country," Sebelius said.
"I want to address that confusion head on," she said.
"The U.S. Preventive Task Force is an outside independent panel of doctors and scientists who make recommendations. They do not set federal policy and they don't determine what services are covered by the federal government," she said.
She said there has been long-standing debate in the United States over when routine screening mammograms should start, and how often they should be done.
"What is clear is that there is a great need for more evidence, more research and more scientific innovation to help women prevent, detect, and fight breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women."
She advised women to "keep doing what you have been doing for years -- talk to your doctor about your individual history, ask questions, and make the decision that is right for you."
Representative Dave Camp, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said the new guidelines amount to rationing. "This is what happens when bureaucrats make your health care decisions," he told the New York Times on Tuesday.
Democrats bristled at the suggestion that the new guidelines were motivated by cost, something the panel has denied.
"If we can cut through the Republicans' political gamesmanship on this issue, the new breast cancer recommendations, as always, were an attempt to put the best possible evidence in the hands of women and their doctors, so they can assess their own risk and benefit," Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut said in a statement.
"To suggest that our bill, the Affordable Health Care for America Act, does anything other than reduce cost, ensure that insurers stop discriminating against women, and improve the health insurance system for the 192,000 American women diagnosed with breast cancer each year, is absurd," DeLauro said in a statement.
Breast cancer is the top cancer killer of women globally, killing 500,000 annually.
(Editing by Maggie Fox and Philip Barbara)