One more company perk: on-site mammograms

Mobile mammography units that provide breast cancer screenings in their company parking lots are the latest tool for corporations that want to keep their employees healthy and lower insurance costs

jsmialek@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2012 

A photo of N.C. State University Women’s Basketball Coach Kay Yow, who died in 2009 after battling cancer, smiles down from the side of a petal-pink van adorned with her quote, “Never let the urgent get in the way of the important.” This breast cancer awareness month, a steady stream of local employees are moving through the bus doors, taking a few minutes out of hectic schedules to care for their health.

The vehicle, one of Rex Healthcare’s two mobile mammography units, parked at the Cameron Village shopping center on a recent Friday as part of York Properties’ effort to make wellness screening available to its workers and the community. York is one of more than 50 Triangle companies, including GlaxoSmithKline and GE Aviation, offering mobile mammograms to employees through Rex.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer,” said Gretchen Saussy, who as York’s marketing coordinator handles the mobile mammography event for the real estate management company. “… It’s easy, and it’s convenient.”

York has hosted mobile screenings for the past decade, but Rex’s service, started in 2001 to bring mammograms to underserved rural areas, has recently caught on with businesses areawide. The vans are on a three- to four-month waiting list, patient representative and driver Jillana Eubanks said, and the roster is increasingly filled with companies.

In the past several years, “wellness” has been a buzzword on Triangle corporate campuses as employers have tried to cut insurance costs by offering programs that encourage exercise, healthy habits and preventative care. Mobile mammograms fit into the picture – rather than taking hours out of their day to make a doctor’s visit, employees make an appointment two weeks in advance. On the day of the mammogram, they board the bus, check in at a waiting area furnished with soft couches and faux-wood floors, and are ushered into a private changing compartment connected to a room complete with standard equipment for the screening. The process takes less than half an hour, and one van can see 25 patients per day.

For companies, the convenience of the screenings can encourage employees to get checked, potentially catching problems early on and preventing dangerous and costly breast cancer.

“We’re a healthcare company, and we want to walk the talk,” said Robert Sutton, a spokesman for GSK, which last year had 516 employees and employees’ partners take advantage of Rex’s buses during multiple stops, he said. About 415 have used the service this year, he said, and it still has four more stops on the company’s campus.

“If you can prevent a disease, it’s cheaper than out-of-pocket costs to take care of someone,” Sutton said. “It’s a benefit GSK offers, like the flu shot.”

Meanwhile, doing screenings on such “paying” customers (with insurance) helps subsidize some of the free screenings the units provide every year for patients without insurance, said Alan Wolf, a spokesman for Rex Healthcare

Rex’s vehicles offer standard breast screenings to women in 15 counties, focusing especially on those who might not have access, said Wendy Avery, the units’ coordinator. About 46 percent of patients screened are uninsured, but 1,000 of them are covered by a Susan G. Komen grant or Rex Hospital Foundation funding, she said.

Local mobile mammography fits into a larger trend: communities and employers nationwide are taking advantage of mobile mammography units and other healthcare options that can travel to employees, said Aly Farber, who works in medical sales at Farber Specialty Vehicles, an Ohio manufacturer that builds mammogram units for clients nationwide. Orders for the mammography vans, which cost anywhere from a “couple hundred thousand” dollars to more than $1 million, have increased in the past two to three years, she said.

“I think they’re going to become increasingly popular,” she said, explaining that mammogram equipment is expensive, and mobility allows multiple organizations to share the services and costs of the unit. Corporations emphasizing preventative healthcare are driving some of the growth, Farber said.

Though GSK remains its largest site, Rex is adding new companies, like GE Aviation in Durham, to its stops. After the company was chosen for a breast cancer awareness-themed media event, benefits specialist Jessica Pope decided mobile mammography screening would be a natural fit.

As hundreds of employees wearing pink hardhats stood in formation to form a human pink ribbon at the awareness event last week, about a dozen employees and employee spouses were registered to receive insurance-covered mammograms on-location.

“It just made sense to do this,” Pope said. “This is kind of one of those two-punch events.”

And at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, which has a 76 percent female workforce and has brought Rex’s unit onsite since 2006, the service has grown to see 360 patients in the course of nine visits this year from an initial 100 people over four days, Chief Human Resources Officer Fara Palumbo said. About 10 percent of patients over the past six years have been referred for further screening, she said.

“What you’re doing is giving them the chance to detect the cancer earlier,” Palumbo said. “… I don’t really know how much more convenient we can make it.”

Smialek: 919-829-4954

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