Veterans to Get Improved Access to Mammograms Through Bills Headed to Biden's Desk

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mammography technologist at Naval Hospital Jacksonville assists a patient during a mammogram
Michelle Kincaid, a mammography technologist at Naval Hospital Jacksonville, assists a patient during a mammogram, Sept. 27, 2021. (Deidre Smith/U.S. Navy)

Veterans, including those who may be at increased risk for breast cancer because of their service near burn pits, could have better access to breast cancer screenings under a pair of bills that cleared Congress this week.

The House on Wednesday night voted 418-0 to approve the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas Supporting Expanded Review for Veterans in Combat Environments, or SERVICE, Act, which would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct mammograms for all women who served near burn pits or other toxic exposures, regardless of symptoms, age or family history.

The chamber also voted 419-0 to pass the Making Advances in Mammography and Medical Options, or MAMMO, for Veterans Act, which would require the VA to craft a strategic plan to improve breast imaging services within a year, create a three-year pilot program of telemammography for veterans in areas where the VA does not offer in-house mammograms, and expand veterans' access to clinical trials through partnerships with the National Cancer Institute.

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Both bills passed the Senate unanimously in March, meaning they now only await President Joe Biden's signature before becoming law.

The Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas SERVICE Act is named after a Marine Corps veteran who died in April after being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at age 38. Thomas served near a burn pit in Iraq and was unaware she faced an elevated risk of breast cancer, but was advised to get a mammogram in 2018 during a routine medical exam.

In written testimony last year, Thomas told senators that she "needed that mammogram sooner."

"Early detection and treatment are key in the fight against breast cancer," Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the lead sponsor of the bill, said in a statement when the bill passed the Senate. "Given the additional risk factors associated with toxic exposure, which we know has occurred in recent combat settings, the VA must update its policies so vulnerable veterans can receive mammograms."

Passage of the bill came the same day senators announced a bipartisan deal to greatly expand health care and benefits for veterans suffering from illnesses related to toxic exposure. While the full text of the agreement has not yet been released, the House-passed bill upon which the deal is based did not include breast cancer as one of the ailments for which benefits would automatically be extended.

The two mammogram bills were among a slate of 19 veterans-related bills, including several others that also focus on issues primarily affecting female veterans, the House passed this week, its last before it goes on a two-week Memorial Day recess.

Bills approved Wednesday included four meant to improve support for survivors of military sexual trauma.

One bill, approved 417-0, seeks to improve coordination between the Veterans Benefits Administration and Veterans Health Administration when helping veterans file claims related to sexual trauma.

Another, passed 405-12, would add annual training on sexual trauma for members of the Board of Veterans' Appeals, which hears veterans' benefits claims after they've been denied. The opposition came entirely from Republicans.

The House also advanced a bill in a 414-2 vote to require the VA to have the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine conduct a comprehensive review of VA medical examinations for people who submit claims for mental and physical conditions related to sexual trauma. The "no" votes came from Reps. Sean Casten, D-Ill., and Diana Harshbarger, R-Tenn.

And the chamber passed a bill in a 420-0 vote to create a peer support program at the Veterans Benefits Administration for sexual trauma survivors.

The House also voted 420-0 to require the VA to provide lactation rooms for veteran moms in all of its medical centers. An estimated 90 VA facilities across the country already have nursing rooms, but only VA employees can access them.

"The bills passed today address the unique needs of women veterans, including ensuring safe and discreet lactation spaces for veteran mothers who seek care at VA facilities and providing dignity to survivors of MST as they go through the claims process," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said in a statement.

The MST bills and the lactation room bill still need to be voted on by the Senate before they could be signed into law by Biden.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Deal for Sweeping Toxic Exposure Bill Reached in Senate

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