A coalition of public health advocacy groups — including the the American Cancer Society, the Maine Medical Association, New England Cancer Specialists and the Maine Primary Care Association —  are slamming a decision by the LePage administration to turn down $2.5 million in federal money for colorectal cancer screenings. Maine was chosen as one of 24 states to receive a competitive federal grant to increase colorectal cancer screening rates through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Colorectal Cancer Control Program (CRCCP). 

“These are Maine’s taxpayers’ dollars that belong back in the state of Maine, to save Maine lives,” said Tina Pettingill, executive director of the Maine Public Health Association, in a statement. “To continue to make progress in the fight against cancer, we need to continue to work in partnership with the state and federal governments. Maine received this grant because of our successful state and private sector initiatives in colorectal cancer screening and prevention, yet the Governor has elected to discard the opportunity to enhance the systems of care that could save the lives of Maine men and women.”

The health care experts noted that colorectal cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer among men and women combined and the third leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in Maine, but it is preventable with routine screening. 

The American Cancer Society estimates that 610 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and that 240 people will die from the disease in Maine this year. 

 

“Colorectal cancer is a major public health problem in Maine, and adults age 50 and older should be regularly screened for it,”  said Tara Hill, executive director of Maine Cancer Foundation, in a statement. “However, we have found that many people aren’t getting tested because they don’t realize they are at risk, don’t understand the testing options or don’t think they can afford it. By rejecting this federal funding, we are risking the health of our friends and neighbors and asking the state to take on the financial burden. The key to cancer is catching it early when it’s treatable and beatable. The CRCCP does exactly that.”

In a statement, Maine CDC director Ken Albert said that spending nearly a half million dollars a year on outreach strategies related to “one type of cancer” is “not a good investment of taxpayer dollars.”

“The reality is that healthcare providers  already use outreach strategies with  their patients about all types of screenings,” said Albert.

Last summer, the LePage administration also came under fire for rejecting a request by the Maine CDC to reapply for a two-year $300,000 federal grant to improve testing and treatment of drinking water wells before the program’s existing federal funds ran out in August. In a letter to Commissioner Mary Mayhew, a bipartisan group of legislators noted that Maine has the highest reliance on well water in the country, yet only 45 percent of Mainers test their well water for harmful chemicals like arsenic, which is commonly found in bedrock. 

A recent  Dartmouth College study estimated that 150,000 Mainers, or one in 10 residents, could be consuming water with high arsenic concentrations. A five-year study of 272 Maine schoolchildren by researchers at Columbia University and the University of New Hampshire suggests that even exposure to low levels of arsenic could be linked to lower IQ scores. The lawmakers also expressed concerns that the CDC had halted a program to distribute free water-test kits to households. 

At the time, Commissioner Mary Mayhew dismissed the concerns, telling the Portland Press Herald in a statement, “The state should not be competing with Maine businesses by using taxpayer dollars to hand out free products and services to people who can afford to pay for them.”