California Senate Bill 791, a piece of legislation awaiting governor Jerry Brown’s signature, could be worth millions of dollars for U-Systems, a firm specializing in automated breast ultrasound technology. The bill would require clinics to inform women if they have high-density breast tissue, which can make imaging cancerous tumors difficult with mammography. In an article titled “Eleventh-hour lawmaking with morning-after questions,” the L.A.

September 30, 2011

3 Min Read
California Breast-Screening Bill Creates Controversy

California Senate Bill 791, a piece of legislation recently vetoed by governor Jerry Brown, would have been worth millions of dollars for breast ultrasound technology firm U-Systems, according to the L.A. Times. The bill would require clinics to inform women if they have high-density breast tissue, which can make imaging cancerous tumors difficult with mammography. In an article titled “Eleventh-hour lawmaking with morning-after questions,” the L.A. Times questions the motives behind the regulation’s sponsorship—as well as the method with which it was passed in the state senate.

 

caduceus.gifThe bill was supported Joe Simitian, a senator representing California’s 11th Senate District—in which U-Systems happens to be based. After the bill was passed, the senator reported to the L.A. Times that he had never heard of the company, which has lobbied to pass similar breast-tissue notification bills in other states. In lieu of lobbying directly, the company recruits breast cancer survivors to campaign on its behalf. 

 

Adding to the controversy is the method that was used to pass the legislation, which is known as “gut and amend,” in which, late in a legislative session, the content of a prior bill is stripped out and replaced with new legislation. In this case, a bill regarding local gas taxes was “amended” to caution women about breast cancer risks.

  

Simitian was persuaded to support the legislation after he was approached by Amy Colton, a nurse and breast cancer survivor, who came to him with the idea to force doctors to warn women if they have dense breast tissue.

 

Colton told the L.A. Times that such a law would have helped her:

 

"The radiologist knew I had dense breast tissue, my primary care physician knew," she told the senator. "The only one who didn't know was me."

 

Simitian had sponsored a “There Ought to Be a Law” contest, in which he solicited recommendations for proposed legislation. Colton, who had been encouraged by U-Systems to support such notification legislation, entered it and won.

 

More information on the breast-screening legislation is available in from the L.A. Times.

 

Update: This article was updated on October 10, when I received news that it was vetoed.

 

Amy Colton, who had originally brought the idea for the bill to Senator Simitian wrote a touching letter explaining her disappointment that the bill was not passed. In that letter, Colton writes, addressing the governor:

 

In your veto message, you cite the “unnecessary anxiety” that breast density notification would cause. I ask you for a moment to consider the “anxiety” of a late stage cancer diagnosis. As if that isn’t devastating enough, imagine learning that your cancer might very well have been detected at an earlier stage had you received notice that you have a condition that masks breast cancer. There is no comparison between the speculated “anxiety” that breast density notification would cause and the “anxiety” of a late stage cancer diagnosis.

 

In an earlier update, I had updated the text here after Simitian wrote a letter to the editor to the L.A. Times about their coverage. The text the paper published is below:

 

The Times' story regarding my legislation to improve breast cancer detection (SB 791) suggests the bill received "little scrutiny;" not so.

The two-sentence notice to patients at the heart of the legislation was debated in six committee hearings and three floor sessions between Feb. 7 and Sept. 9, when the Legislature took final action.

That debate resulted in clear consensus that the effectiveness of mammography alone for women with dense breast tissue is limited and that women with this tissue should be given notice of that fact.

After seven months and extended debate, the Legislature voted (66 to 6 in the Assembly, 35 to 1 in the Senate) to require this two-sentence notice. Two sentences can save thousands of lives. Let's hope the governor signs SB 791.

Sen. Joe Simitian
(D-Palo Alto)

Brian Buntz

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