While Washington D.C. bigwigs fumble their way through national health care reform, YWCA Salem’s Karla Iverson works the front lines.

“You’d be amazed at how many people can’t get a breast cancer screening,” Iverson said.

President Barack Obama may have a health care bill on his desk by the end of the month, but local women seeking breast cancer screening probably owe more to Iverson and the YWCA staff than anyone on Capitol Hill.

The highest breast cancer rates in the nation are found in the Pacific Northwest, but the specific reason is unknown. In Oregon alone, 51 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each week, and nine die of the disease. Marion County is one of two counties in the state where the incidence of breast cancer is statistically higher than the state average.

As director of the women’s health program at YWCA, Iverson works to connect low-income women to limited resources for breast cancer screening and treatment and to raise awareness throughout the community.

In an ideal world every woman would get screened, but Iverson must play the hand she’s been dealt and that means avoiding worst-case scenarios.

“We have one client in the hospital right now battling stage IV [breast cancer]. She didn’t get to us until she was jaundiced because the cancer had spread to her liver,” Iverson said.

Upon discovery of a lump, most women’s immediate reaction is fear and, lacking knowledge of where to turn for help or money pay for it, fear can paralyze, Iverson said.

YWCA connects women to local resources for screening and, when funds permit, provides vouchers to cover the cost. The waiting list of eligible women needing screenings tops 140. The length of the list requires triage of the most at-risk clients.

On the bright side, Iverson has been successful in lining up local resources for women to tap into – both psychological and medical.

After the organization’s Discover Pink Walk, Loretta Miles, owner of Salem Cinema, held a special screening for survivors who participated in the walk.

Last May, Dr. Elizebeth Harmon and staff at the Salem Women’s Office shut down their regular office functions to screen 42 women, ages 32 to 64, on YWCA’s waiting list. Eleven were found to need further diagnostic screening.

Last month, the program received a $20,000 Kaiser Permanente employee grant. Carol and Karen Gleason, employees of Kaiser Permanente, volunteer in the YWCA breast cancer programs and nominated the organization for the grant. The funds will cover the screening of women in the YWCA Salem service area: Marion and Polk Counties.

Connecting clients to diagnostic care requires jumping through a whole other set of flaming hoops.

“If an uninsured woman receives diagnostic treatment before being enrolled in the Oregon Breast and Cervical Cancer Program, then she can’t be covered by the Oregon Health Plan,” Iverson said.

She and others testified in front of the the Oregon Legislature earlier this year to get the rules changed, but a bill that would have made the program easier to access died after the recession hit.

“It’s disheartening because the survival rate of breast cancer is 98 percent if it’s discovered in the first stage,” she said.

A plan for a second run at the reform is in beginning stages.

Iverson was appalled at a recent suggestion by the United States Preventive Services Task Force to wait until age 50 rather than 40 to begin regular screening.

“There’s nothing more we can ask of people than to do some personal preventative care. The guidelines they’ve suggested are for women in ideal situations, most of us aren’t that lucky,” Iverson said. “Early detection still ensures the most options for treatment.”

For more information about the YWCA Women’s Health Program, contact Iverson at 503-581-9922, ext. 304 or visit the YWCA Salem Web site at ywcasalem.org.