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Published December 18, 2013, 10:03 AM

Altru tries to make colonoscopy available to uninsured and poor

Despite it being the third leading cause of cancer deaths in North Dakota, many people still aren't getting screened for colorectal cancer, Altru Health System officials say.

By: Charley Haley, Grand Forks Herald

Despite it being the third leading cause of cancer deaths in North Dakota, many people still aren't getting screened for colorectal cancer, Altru Health System officials say.

That's why the system is working to raise awareness of the need for colonoscopies for people between ages 50 and 75 - including raising money for those who can't afford the screening.

Altru announced Friday it received $115,500 in grant money from the North Dakota Department of Health to provide colonoscopies to uninsured or underinsured patients.

"It will provide financial assistance to at least 55 patients to have a colonoscopy," said Loree Alberts, manager of the endoscopy center.

Patients eligible for funds through the grant money would have to be North Dakota residents with qualifying incomes.

The proceeds from Altru's Harvest Gala this year will also go directly toward helping people pay for colonoscopies, said Jon Green, executive director for the Altru Health Foundation. The annual gala, set for Sept. 27, 2014, usually brings in about $200,000, he said.

"It truly is for individuals who could not afford it," Green said.

Some people may be uninsured, while others may be unable to afford the co-pay or the gas to drive to Grand Forks for their colonoscopy, Alberts said.

"We really want to assist as many people as we can," she said, so the amount of financial assistance will be adjusted per patient.

The approximate cost of a colonoscopy without insurance is about $1,700 to $2,000, but the amount covered by insurance companies varies, Alberts said.

Raising awareness

Colonoscopies are procedures that insurance companies are starting to provide more coverage for, Alberts said, because there is a clear risk. With a screening, the cancer "is very preventative."

Only 57 percent of adults in North Dakota of the at-risk age - between 50 and 75, or younger if there's a family history of colorectal cancer - have had a colonoscopy, according to statistics provided by Altru.

In addition to the financial burdens that prevent some patients from having the screening, other barriers are that people don't think it's a risk, or that they may be afraid a colonoscopy will be painful, said Dr. Anthony Chu, gastroenterologist at Altru.

"There's no reason for the patient to have any pain," because of medications used in the screening, Chu said.

With its effort to increase the number of people who have colonoscopies, Alberts said, Altru hopes to reduce the number of colon cancer cases diagnosed at stage three and four - which are more difficult to recover from - from 39 percent to 20 percent in the health system's service area, the region around Grand Forks.

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