Since April 2014 the Virgin Islands has had a medical assistance program that covers treatment costs for uninsured women with breast and cervical cancer, but many health care professionals and community members are unaware that it exists.
In the last two months, Charlene Kehoe, director of Cancer Support VI, said that four uninsured women have come to her organization seeking financial assistance for breast and cervical cancer not knowing about the Medicaid Breast and Cervical Cancer Insurance Program.
Kehoe, who is also the corporate fundraising and events director at International Capital and Management Co., said she doesn’t believe health care professionals know about the program and that more needs to be done to inform them.
A lack of knowledge about the program is a major impediment to its success, Kehoe said, since there are strict eligibility requirements, the most important of which is having a biopsy done at a site approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the closest of which is in Puerto Rico. If a private physician does the biopsy locally, the women won’t qualify for the program.
Three of those four women that have come to Kehoe have already had biopsies done in the territory, so unless they choose not to disclose that they had them, they can’t get the insurance coverage.
“Biopsies are not fun and no one would want to get two mini-surgeries if they don’t have to.” Kehoe said. “And some women are not comfortable lying about their [first] biopsy.”
Kehoe said she has spoken to a number of head government officials and that they are committed to getting the word out about the program and making sure women aren’t disqualified from getting the coverage.
According to the Department of Human Services, applicants for the program don’t have to verify their income, but they must prove that they have U.S. citizenship and V.I. residency, as well as be under 65 years of age and uninsured.
The applicants must first test positive for breast or cervical cancer through having a mammogram or PAP at local Department of Health clinics, which are located at the Frederiksted Health Center on St. Croix and the East End Medical Center on St. Thomas.
Once an applicant visits one of the territory’s clinics, they must have the diagnosis confirmed by a biopsy at a CDC-approved site in Puerto Rico. The program will cover the cost of airfare, but it’s still a taxing trip. Kehoe said she is currently working with the V.I. Department of Health to apply for a grant that would allow for a CDC-approved biopsy testing site in the territory.
To reiterate, if a woman gets a biopsy from a private physician, they are ineligible for this coverage. That fact underscores the importance of raising awareness of the program and its requirements, as well as the need for a local CDC-approved biopsy testing site that would make it easier for women to visit.
“We are essentially denying eligibility by not letting people know they need to go to Puerto Rico for a biopsy,” Kehoe said. “It’s really a matter of life and death.”
Kehoe continued, “I can give up to $4,000 through the Cancer Support VI fund, but that’s just a drop in the bucket for the cost of treatment.”
In a press statement released from May 25, Department of Human Services Commissioner Vivian I. Ebbesen-Fludd said, “We continue to proactively develop the local program with a keen focus on breast and cervical cancer diagnosis. We have also advanced a broad brush approach to ensure that qualifying women can access treatment and not be discouraged by the cost.”
To learn more about the program and be walked through the process, reach out to Cancer Support VI at 340-715-5806 or call Ishmael Rodriquez, special services supervisor at the Department of Human Services, Medicaid Program, at 340-774-0930 ext. 4352.