Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C.

Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Senators introduced legislation Thursday that aims to extend mammogram services to female veterans in the 15 states where the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t perform them.

The bill, titled the Mammography and Medical Options for Veterans Act, gives the VA one year to start a pilot program for veterans who live in states where the department doesn’t offer in-house mammography services. Those states are Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Senators suggested the program could use VA community-based outpatient clinics, rural health clinics, mobile mammography clinics or other facilities to conduct mammograms and send them to the VA’s central tele-mammography center for interpretation by expert radiologists.

“The best way we can fight breast cancer is with early detection and top-notch preventative care — plain and simple,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., one of the sponsors of the bill. “That’s why it’s critically important that we expand every veteran’s access to high-quality cancer screening and care, no matter where they live.”

Tester introduced the bill, along with Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Susan Collins, R-Maine. Reps. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, are leading the House companion bill.

In addition to extending access to mammograms for veterans in rural areas, the bill makes sweeping changes to VA mammography. In part, it would upgrade all of the VA’s in-house mammography services to use 3D imaging, called digital breast tomosynthesis.

DBT builds a three-dimensional image of a breast to better detect and diagnose cancer, especially for women with dense tissue. Congress passed a law last year that required the Pentagon to make 3D screenings available to active-duty service members, retirees and their families.

Currently, 88% of the department’s mammography sites use 3D screenings. The bill requires the VA to offer them at the remaining locations.

The legislation also mandates the VA create plans and conduct studies around breast cancer treatment. The department would be required to release a strategic plan for mammography, which looks at improving imaging, male breast cancer, the evolving needs of female veterans, as well as the disparities in care between rural and urban veterans.

In the bill, senators also order the VA Office of Inspector General to investigate veterans’ access to mammography, the quality of the screenings and the overall performance of medical providers who treat veterans with breast cancer.

“The VA is uniquely positioned to be a leader in the fight against breast cancer,” Boozman said in a statement. “By harnessing the research and technology available nationwide, the department can be better suited to address the needs of breast cancer patients across the country.”

Earlier this week, Boozman introduced another bill that would require the VA to begin conducting mammograms at younger ages for female veterans.

The Supporting Expanded Review for Veterans in Combat Environments bill would extend access to mammograms for all female veterans who served in areas with burn pits or other toxic exposures, regardless of their age, symptoms or family history.

According to a report from the National Institutes of Health, female veterans and female military personnel are estimated to be 40% more likely to develop breast cancer than the general female population.

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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