New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his partner Sandra Lee have in recent days become high-profile public faces in the fight against cancer. Tweeting out hospital photos after Lee’s double mastectomy this week, the couple has cited her breast cancer diagnosis to, in Cuomo’s words, “speak openly about her illness in order to remind women of the potentially lifesaving power of early detection.”
That public education campaign about the value of cancer screening, however, contrasts with what health advocates say are Cuomo’s repeated efforts to cut funding for a major cancer screening program in New York. Only a few months ago, in fact, the American Cancer Society sounded the alarm, slamming Cuomo for pushing an initiative the group said could end up eliminating cancer screening services for more than 16,000 New Yorkers who do not have insurance that fully covers such screenings. In February, cancer survivors and public health advocates testified before the New York legislature, begging lawmakers to reject the governor’s proposed cuts.
“Who here wants to tell that mom, dad, brother or sister they can’t be screened for cancer?” asked the American Cancer Society’s Bill Sherman at a state senate hearing. Of Cuomo’s budget proposal, he said it would lead “to thousands of New York residents failing to get life-saving cancer screenings.”
In response to International Business Times' questions about the American Cancer Society's criticism of Cuomo's budget proposals, the governor's spokesman, Richard Azzopardi, said, "Get your facts straight, then try again." He provided no new data or facts to refute the group, nor did he respond to IBTimes’ questions about whether Cuomo's experience with Lee’s illness has changed the governor's views on state funding for cancer screening. For her part, Lee has not spoken out specifically about the budget proposals, but recently told ABC News that “I don't want women to wait” to be screened for breast cancer and also said that women should “go pick your phone up, and call your doctor and get your rear end in there and get a mammogram right now.”
This year’s proposed budget cuts were just one of many such efforts by Cuomo. Indeed, while being lauded by business groups for championing corporate tax breaks and opposing revenue-generating tax increases on millionaires, the Democratic governor has repeatedly issued budget proposals to slash state funding for cancer screenings.
In 2012, Cuomo proposed a $650,000 cut to state funding for the cancer services program. The next year Cuomo proposed to consolidate state health programs in a way that public health advocates said would result in a 10 percent cut to the state’s funding for cancer screening. In 2013 and 2014, Cuomo proposed 25 percent cuts to cancer screening -- already significantly below the high-water mark -- but was beaten back by the legislature, according to the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. Advocates also said that under Cuomo’s budget, “critical programs like the Breast Cancer Survivors’ Support Initiative, which was the lifeline for survivor-led community support organizations across the state, get the ax.” Then came a new round of proposed cuts in 2015, even as New York has in recent years been running budget surpluses.
While cancer advocacy groups have convinced legislators to reverse Cuomo’s proposed cuts to the state’s cancer services program in the last two years, a representative for the American Cancer Society told IBTimes that funding for the program is still significantly below its high mark of $29 million in the years before Cuomo took office. For the past two fiscal years, funding has been frozen at $25.3 million -- a nearly 20 percent inflation-adjusted cut to cancer services over the governor’s tenure.
In an emailed statement responding to Cuomo's spokesperson, Bill Sherman of the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network said "I’m guessing Mr. Azzopardi did not provide new data or facts to refute us because the data I cited came directly from his Department of Health. At the time they were the most recent stats on the number of cancer screenings conducted through the CSP program. "
Azzopardi then sent a new statement to IBTimes asserting that "The Governor for several years has advanced a new competitive model to allow the best programs with a proven track record of results the opportunity for even more funding than they received previously." Azzopardi provided no data to back up the assertion, and he did not dispute the American Cancer Society's data about the funding cuts to the cancer screening program.