The Mecklenburg County Health Department is trying to spread the word to women in low-income households about a free program that provides screenings for breast and cervical cancers.

The Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, which has been around for years, has enough money to cover the cost of screenings for 1,000 Mecklenburg women each year. But with the clock ticking on the current fiscal calendar, only about 700 women have gotten the free screenings, said Dr. Marcus Plescia, the county’s health director.

“Somehow the visibility has dropped off, and people aren’t aware of this,” Plescia told Qcitymetro in a recent interview. “If you don’t have health insurance and are interested in having screening for breast and cervical cancer, this is a mechanism that allows us to provide that.”

In addition to not having health insurance, women who apply also must meet federal guidelines that relate to family income and poverty. Those guidelines vary based on family size.

Q. Who should get tested?

Plescia. “It’s women over the age of 40, and the real priority population is women over the age of 50. That’s where breast cancer is the most prevalent.”

Q. How many women potentially qualify for free screenings?

P. “There are probably 25,000 women in this community, in Mecklenburg County, who don’t have health insurance and are of the age where they should be screened for cancer. So we’re a pretty modest drop in the bucket of need. Nonetheless, a lot of people, they don’t pursue screening tests. I think it’s an important source of care for people.”

Q. Are these screenings done at the Health Department?

P. “Our contractor is Charlotte Radiology, which is a big mammography provider here in town. So people who get the test done are going to the same provider that someone with insurance would. We used to have the mammography units at the Health Department, but the technology has changed, and it’s much more affordable for us to pay for somebody else to do the services.”

Q. Aside from the income limits, is there much paperwork required.

P. Yeah, if you have a job, you need to bring proof of what your income is. If you don’t have a job, you need to attest to the fact that you don’t have a job. I think there are a wide range of things they use to try to get a picture of people’s financial status. We have to be good stewards of the program, so we have to look for that. I think the requirements are fairly reasonable. Some people don’t like to fill out a bunch of paperwork. That is clearly one of the barriers. But given that, I think it’s fairly easy to prove you’re eligible.”

Q. Breast cancer can be especially deadly for black women. Is that correct?

P. “African American women, on the whole, are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer is not as common amongst African Americans as it is among white women. But African American women are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer, despite the fact that it is a less common disease. There is no explanation for that that I can understand. There is a real disparity there. So in some ways, of all the disparities I see, this one and HIV are the two most significant ones. The difference is unacceptable.

Q. Can higher death rates among black women be traced to a lack of early detection?

P. “Some of it is, but we’ve gotten a lot closer now in parity around screening. If you look at screening rates for breast cancer among blacks and whites, it’s pretty close to the same — about 80 percent of women get screened on a regular basis. In the past, I think we’ve had some major issues there, but that’s one of the places where we’ve been able to close the gap. Clearly, one of the areas where there is some good scientific evidence is that there are some issues around quality of care. If you are white and you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you’re likely to be able to get a better quality care than if you are black. I think there are a range of things that tie into that… Whites are more likely to get some of the more advanced therapies. I can’t tell you why that is. People ask me if there is discrimination. Yeah, there probably is still some discrimination.

For more information on breast and cervical cancer screenings, visit the Health Department web site.