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‘CANCER CAUCUS’

Remembering McEachin, Campbell, lawmakers push bill for cancer screening

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Del. Ellen Campbell, R-Rockbridge, right, who filled the House seat left vacant by the death of her husband, Ronnie, last month from cancer, is recognized by Nkechi George-Winkler, chief of staff for Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, and Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg, during the “Cancer Caucus” on Friday.

RICHMOND — U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, had traveled a long road in his recovery from rectal cancer — and the effects of its treatment — when he died suddenly on Nov. 28, three weeks after winning a fourth term in Congress.

Two weeks later, Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge, died after what his family described as “a hard-fought battle with cancer.” Campbell’s 24th District included part of Amherst County.

Last week, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin and Del. Ellen Campbell, R-Rockbridge, who was elected earlier this month to fill her late husband’s House seat, visited a meeting of the General Assembly “Cancer Caucus” to honor their husbands and shine a light on efforts to prevent and treat cancer.

Those efforts include House Bill 2356, proposed by McEachin’s longtime friend Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, as part of a push by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in Virginia to ensure that health insurance covers all preventive screening for colorectal cancer, including colonoscopies. Two weeks before his death, McEachin had appeared at a Richmond screening of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and told the audience: “Don’t fool around. Don’t go through my journey. Go to a doctor.”

McEachin said early detection could have spared him from the treatment that cured the disease, but caused side effects that his wife said had begun affecting his health since shortly after his first election to Congress.

“The cancer was cured,” she told an audience that included House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, who had entered the House of Delegates with McEachin in 2006 and had been a close friend of Campbell. “He did not die of his cancer. He died of all the remedial things that were done to cure the cancer: the radiation, the surgeries, the medications, the treatment.”

But Colette McEachin said neither the cancer nor the treatment had stopped him from his work in Congress.

“His job got him through his illness,” she said. “His job was the North Star for him as he fought that battle.’

A longtime prosecutor who is serving her second term as Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney, McEachin said in an email that her husband was scheduled to have surgery on Dec. 1, three days after his death, but was ready for a fourth term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“So neither he nor his doctors anticipated his sudden demise or believed that he would be unable to fulfill his congressional responsibilities,” she wrote Thursday.

But McEachin also recalled his message about preventive screening to detect signs of cancer earlier, when treatment has a higher chance of success with fewer debilitating side effects.

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“Don’t be an ostrich,” she said Friday. “Don’t put your head in the sand.”

McQuinn’s legislation is scheduled for hearing before a House subcommittee on Tuesday morning. It would require health insurance to cover colorectal screening without copayments or deductibles. That includes an outpatient colonoscopy, even if someone has used Colo-Guard, an over-the-counter test as an initial screening at home.

For insurance purposes, the bill states, “The initial screening test shall not be considered completed until a follow colonoscopy is performed.”

The Virginia Association of Health Plans generally supports requirements for insurance coverage of preventive screening and checkups, as long as it follows federal guidelines, not those of a private organization, such as the cancer society.

“If it’s screening and you’re meeting the standards of the federal government, it is a preventative service and preventative services don’t require a co-pay,” said Doug Gray, executive director of the health insurance association.

The American Cancer Society adopted guidelines in 2018 that recommended people begin screening for colorectal cancer at 45 years old, rather than at 50 under the guidelines that it had adopted 10 years earlier.

In 2021, the United States Preventative Task Force updated its guidelines to lower the initial screening age for colorectal cancer from 50 to 45 and recommend continued, regular screening until age 75. The guidelines also recommended that positive results from an at-home stool test should be followed by a colonoscopy.

Last year, three federal agencies — Labor; Health and Human Services; and Treasury — adopted standards that recommended a follow-up colonoscopy after a positive at-home test for colorectal cancer, all to be covered by health insurance without copayments.

The cancer society wants to put that guidance into state law so insurers don’t treat a colonoscopy as a diagnostic procedure subject to co-payments, rather than preventive care.

McEachin considers part of the challenge to be cultural, both for men and people in the African American community, who for different reasons might be reluctant to seek medical screening or care. For women, the need for a mammogram to detect breast cancer is “something as a woman you hear very young and very often,” she said in an interview on Friday.

“I think the same thing needs to happen over time with colorectal screening and prostate screening,” she said.

In her remarks to the “Cancer Caucus,” she said, “Cancer is a killer, but it can be caught in time and it can be treated and you can survive it.”

Michael Martz (804) 649-6964

mmartz@timesdispatch.com

@mmartzrtd on Twitter

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