Pentagon OKs new breast cancer screenings for Tricare users

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., shown here March 3, 2019, at a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing, was among female veterans who pushed the Defense Department to add new technology for breast cancer screenings to its Tricare coverage.


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 4, 2019

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department will add new technology for breast cancer screenings to its Tricare coverage after female veterans in Congress pushed the Pentagon to make it available to active-duty service members, retirees and their families.

Digital breast tomosynthesis, a 3D mammogram said to better detect breast cancer, will be available for Tricare users beginning Jan. 1, but only on a temporary basis. The decision came after Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., urged Thomas McCaffery, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, to expand Tricare coverage to include DBT screenings.

“I’m glad to see the Department of Defense step up and provide needed coverage for DBT screenings to our active-duty service members and others,” McSally said Tuesday in a statement. “This common sense change will benefit the many women who utilize Tricare.”

The lawmakers introduced legislation in the House and Senate on Nov. 21 that would require Tricare to offer DBT as a primary and preventive health care service. Tricare already offers DBT in some instances for diagnosing patients but not for routine screenings.

McCaffery sent a letter to McSally the same day that she and Houlahan introduced the bills, writing he had approved the addition of DBT for screenings but only provisionally. McCaffery couldn’t add DBT as a permanent service because the United States Preventative Services Task Force doesn’t currently recommend the technology for breast cancer screenings, he wrote.

“I could only approve provisional coverage at this time,” McCaffery wrote. “This provision coverage can be extended for up to five years, during which time we are hopeful that the [United States Preventative Services Task Force] will recommend DBT for breast cancer screenings.”

Digital breast tomosynthesis builds a three-dimensional image of a breast to better detect and diagnose breast cancer, especially for women with dense breast tissue. The technology is already available to women who use Medicare or the Department of Veterans Affairs for their health care. Tricare, though, covers only mammograms with two-dimensional images, which some lawmakers contend is a suboptimal standard of care.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer for women, with one in eight women developing the cancer in their lifetimes, according to the American Cancer Society. DBT has been found to help radiologists detect breast cancer and to reduce the need for biopsies.

“I urge the United States Preventative Services Task Force to recommend DBT for breast cancer screening to ensure permanent coverage of this much-needed service,” McSally said.

After the change goes into effect Jan. 1, the Defense Health Agency will fully implement DBT for breast cancer screenings by early 2020, McCaffery said. McSally’s office plans to work with the department to ensure it becomes a permanent service.

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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