February 3rd, 2012

health care

Komen et al

I suppose it's no great secret how I feel about Planned Parenthood and the services that it provides. Therefore it'd be easy to guess how I'd feel about the recent Komen kerfuffle.

What I don't understand is why a successful boondoggle like Komen would want to screw up its business model by infusing politics into what has been, up to now, innocuous. For the last few years, I've generally done the Race for the Cure, and a lot of times I run with Planned Parenthood. It's a quick $35 in entry fees, and maybe another $150 in raised donations. I didn't really care much about the politics of Komen, though I knew that some Republican from Dallas was in charge of it. I thought it was a relatively decent, harmless cause, and I was willing to support it.

The event is amazing, and the one in Houston is one of the largest in the country. I think the cap is at 25,000 people, but routinely upwards of 35,000 show up. It's really impossible to actually "run" the whole thing, unless you sign up for the competitive race. Even then, there are so many thousands of other people "running" with you, that finding your gait without running over someone or being run over by someone else is challenging. I generally venture solo, abandoning my team, fairly early on. And with my ipod blaring in my ears, I try to weave in and out of traffic as best I can. But I never can actually run until maybe a mile into the "race". There are tons of baby strollers and people walking / running together three or four abreast. I think more people walk it than run it. Kids, teens, adults, the elderly. Every race and ethnicity. Probably about 65 percent women, but plenty of men there too. It seems that every single corporation and organization in Houston has a team put together, and there are thousands of people wearing tee shirts in support of loved ones who have battled breast cancer. Our mayor's partner is a breast cancer survivor. So is my city counsel woman. They all showed up to participate.

It was a harmless, feel-good, innocuous community event. Even with the rumors that more of the money donated was going to overhead and administrative costs to actual helping people with cancer. Even with the knowledge that the best cancer hospital and research facility in the world is in our city, and dollars would be better donated going directly there instead of through a pass through organization. Even with the two second "how the hell am I helping the fight against breast cancer by paying a $35 entrance fee for a silly fun run?" thought that goes through everyone's head as they're getting dressed that morning. And how the hell is the NFL's accessorizing everyone in pink for the entire month of October helping anyone? (Apparently, over 50% of NFL personnel have a mother, sister, wife, girlfriend or other person close to them who has suffered from breast cancer. The pink thing wasn't hard to convince them to do.) And, if like me, you're not entirely convinced that "mammograms for everyone!*" is the appropriate approach, then the whole thing makes you a little uncomfortable.

I actually remember, this past October as I was running into the last mile, thinking that it'd be cool to organize something similar to the Komen race for Planned Parenthood. I thought to have some sort of event with bands along the way, with all sorts of people visibly supporting a cause I find dear. But I knew that because breast cancer isn't political and family planning is, that it'd be impossible to do something for Planned Parenthood on such a vast scale.

No more. Breast cancer, at least by the Komen Foundation, is now political.

My Planned Parenthood affiliate didn't get any money from Komen, by the way. They provided over 40,000 breast exams in the last two years and over 800 referrals of abnormalities to other providers without support from Komen. Yet my Planned Parenthood affiliate supported the Komen race by putting together a team because Komen ostensibly was concerned about women's breast health.

But with the politicization of the issue, Komen has tainted itself. It took sides on something it had nothing to do with. And it took sides on something that people care a LOT about. It's brand is now tainted, and competitors can snatch up some of the goodwill it used to have. I imagine its leadership has been in crisis mode for the last few days, and as more and more of its supporters leave in a huff, it will realize the gravity of its decision.

(As I write this, I got an email from NPR with the headline NPR BREAKING NEWS: Komen Reinstates Funding For Planned Parenthood.)

I think that the amazing swing to the right on family planning issues in the states in the last year or so is beginning to take its toll. Planned Parenthood got more free advertising from the right last year because of the efforts to de-fund it. More people in the country know what Planned Parenthood does, and I think since most people use birth control the idea of objecting to an organization that promotes and provides it is ridiculous.

I doubt I'll ever Race for the Cure again. I doubt that I'll wear pink in October for any reason (not that I did before). If I want to give money for cancer research, I'll give money to M.D. Anderson. If I want to give money to women's health providers, I'll give money to Planned Parenthood. I suspect I'm not the only one.

*I prefer "mammograms if you're high risk", and yes, I understand that there's that 28 year old cancer victim that had no family history or any other risk factors. I also understand that she tends to be an extreme outlier. The false positives, the radiation exposure, and the costs, in my opinion, are detrimental to women's health and the healthcare system as a whole. I tended to agree with the 2009 report from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force regarding mammograms. Mammogram, mammogram, mammogram, is not the right approach. Komen's latest justification, that most Planned Parenthood clinics do not offer mammograms underscores the radiologist lobby's stranglehold on this particular issue.