By John Morrison
Morrison is the former Montana Commissioner of Securities and Insurance. He lives in Helena.
A simple medical screening could have saved my dad’s life. Frank B. Morrison, Jr. lived and worked in Montana as a lawyer, judge, businessman and community leader for 36 years, including seven years on the Montana Supreme Court. He was fortunate always to have health insurance and had the benefit of good family genes. But, dad died unexpectedly at age 68 from something that could have been prevented – colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in the country, and it’s the second leading cause of cancer death. This year, nearly 50,000 Americans will die from it, including about 170 Montanans.
What’s equally as frustrating, is that colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. Half these deaths could be prevented yearly if everyone over 50 had access to and received the recommended screening. Colorectal cancer usually develops as a noncancerous growth, or polyp. These polyps can be identified and removed during routine screenings, preventing cancer altogether.
Fifteen years ago, the standard screening for a man in his 60s with no family history of colon cancer was a sigmoidoscopy, which looks at part but not all of the colon. Dad underwent that test, but never had the full colonoscopy that doctors now recommend. If he had, he could still be alive today. Instead, he died suddenly from a ruptured bowel due to an undetected tumor in the upper reaches of the colon.
While colorectal cancer death rates have declined for the past 20 years, partly due to increased screening rates, one in three adults aged 50 to 75 are still not getting screened as recommended. Because more screening means fewer cancer deaths, the American Cancer Society and its advocacy affiliate the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) have joined more than 650 organizations nationwide on a shared goal to increase colorectal cancer screening rates to 80 percent by 2018.
Montana ranks 49th out of all states for colorectal cancer screenings. Department of Public Health and Human Services data reveal that just 62 percent of Montana adults are up-to-date with their screenings. In order to achieve the 80 percent goal, an additional 260,000 Montana adults need to be current on screenings.
Colonoscopies and other routine screenings are often out of reach for people because of high out-of-pocket costs. The Affordable Care Act requires new private health insurance to cover colonoscopies with no co-insurance, co-pay or deductible. But, a loophole allows seniors on Medicare to get a large bill if a polyp is found and removed during a routine colonoscopy.
Right now, Congress is considering the Removing Barriers to Colorectal Screening Act that would remove this loophole and lift this financial burden for Medicare patients. This bipartisan legislation already has wide support in Congress. I’m glad to see Sen. Tester co-sponsoring this lifesaving legislation, and I urge Sen. Daines and Rep. Zinke to follow his lead.
President Obama named March as National Colorectal Cancer Month. It’s the perfect time for Montanans to learn about colorectal cancer and get screened. And it’s the perfect time for Congress to make it easier for Montanans to get these screenings that can save lives, reduce cancer rates and decrease health care costs.
I lost my dad to a preventable disease. Let’s work together to make such tragedies a thing of the past.