Star-Telegram: Free screenings for 5 cancers will be offered for low-income Tarrant County residents

By Ciara McCarthy, January 27, 2022

An estimated 3,000 Tarrant County residents will get free cancer screenings in the next three years because of a $9 million influx of cash to a cancer program. Tarrant County commissioners decided in January to approve funding for the mobile cancer screening program run by Moncrief Cancer Institute in Fort Worth. The money was allocated to Tarrant County through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which distributed millions to the county to help alleviate the economic, health and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fort Worth’s Moncrief Cancer Institute has long offered free cancer screenings to low-income residents in Tarrant and surrounding counties. But the influx of money will allow the program to serve more people and focus specifically on Tarrant County residents, said Dr. Keith Argenbright, the director of the institute.

“It’s both a humanitarian and an economic investment,” Argenbright said. “We’re finding this cancer early, and we’re giving people a very, very good chance to live so that they can work, so that they can be with their families, so that they can enjoy a much fuller life. But at the same time ... we’re eliminating health care costs that otherwise would have to be borne by the system down the road.”

The earlier a cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat, Argenbright said.

The screenings are designated specifically for county residents who would not otherwise be able to get a cancer screening. For county residents with a health insurance plan that complies with the Affordable Care Act, all initial screenings are required to be free of cost as a preventive service. But Tarrant County, like the rest of Texas, is home to thousands of people who don’t have health insurance, and thus must rely on the availability of free or low-cost services to access preventive care. And even those people who do have health insurance might need help paying for more advanced diagnostic tests and procedures recommended after an initial screening. Any county resident who meets clinical criteria and who needs help paying for screening can get services for free through the mobile screening program, Argenbright said.

The program offers screenings for breast, cervical, colorectal, lung and prostate cancers. Health care workers can conduct mammograms, pap tests, and collect blood samples for a prostrate screening test on the bus itself. Patients can get instructions for an at-home test for colon cancer, and can receive referrals to for lung cancer screenings.

Anyone who has a financial need for the screening, meets clinical criteria, and is a county resident is eligible for services, Argenbright said.

The goals of the program are twofold. First, the mobile clinic will try to tackle the persistent disparities in cancer incidence and mortality. For example, Black Texas women have the highest mortality rate for breast cancer compared to any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Texas Cancer Registry. Despite having a similar rate of cancer diagnosis as white women, Black women in Texas are more likely to die from the disease.

Second, the program will try to reverse some of the damage the pandemic caused on cancer screenings and other preventive services. The number of screenings and other non-emergency medical care dropped dramatically in April and May of 2020. Since then, some research has shown medical care return to normal levels, but it’s unclear whether the appointments skipped in 2020 have been made up.

Ned Sharpless, the director of the National Cancer Institute, said in an interview last month that the full impact of pandemic disruptions on cancer incidence and mortality wouldn’t be known for several years.

Officially, Moncrief’s contract with the county begins in June, but Argenbright said screenings could become more widely available as early as February, after two community outreach workers begin identifying community partners and organizations to connect the service to the areas with the greatest need.