State Funds Chernobyl Screening


Amid the publicity given to Gov. Elliot Spitzer’s partially successful efforts to achieve significant savings in health care costs in the state budget, one little-noticed line item expanding state funding for health care was inserted with the support of the leadership of both houses of the State Legislature — $540,000 for thyroid cancer screening for New Yorkers who were exposed to massive amounts of harmful radiation during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

The inclusion in the state budget of funding for Chernobyl victims marked the first time that Albany has committed to funding a project directed almost exclusively at members of the state’s growing Russian-speaking community, an estimated 70 percent of which is Jewish. It is also a testament to the greatly increased political clout of

that community, which elected the first Russian-speaking member of the Assembly, Alec Brook-Krasny (D-Brooklyn) last November.Brook-Krasny and another Brooklyn Democrat, Helene Weinstein, spearheaded the initiative, which won the support of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno and, ultimately, of Spitzer himself. The funding will allow the purchase of two top-of-the-line 3-D ultra-sound machines that work in about 30 seconds, instead of the 20-30 minutes needed to do the testing by regular ultra-sound. The funding will also facilitate two ‘mobile teams’ to do the testing.

Dr. Daniel Igor Branovan, director of the Thyroid Center at The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary in Manhattan and initiator of the funding effort, estimates the thyroid cancer risk at “150,000 to 200,000 people who moved here after the catastrophe on April 26, 1986, from Belarus, as well as much of Ukraine, parts of western Russia and other areas.” The nuclear plant was located in Belarus, only about 60 miles from the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev.

“Doing this testing now is vitally important because people who were adults at the time of their exposure to radiation typically develop thyroid cancer 20 years after the event,” said Branovan. “Thyroid cancer does not manifest any symptoms, so the only way to find out if someone has the disease is to do the test.”

Branovan, who is president of Russian American Jews for Israel and a UJA-Federation board member, has offered thyroid cancer screening on a smaller scale to his own patients and at his private office in Brooklyn. Surveys undertaken in Ukraine and Belarus in recent years have shown a sharp rise in the development of thyroid cancer. A study that Branovan carried out during 2001-2003 showed Russian immigrants nearly three times more likely than others to develop thyroid gland abnormalities.

Branovan joined a delegation of Russian-speaking leaders who lobbied in Albany on Feb. 13 on behalf of funding for the thyroid cancer screening. After Brook-Krasny and Weinstein signed on to sponsor the initiative, they were heartened to quickly win the backing of Silver.

Another supporter of the project was Republican State Sen. Marty Golden of Brooklyn. Once it was clear that both houses of the Legislature would back the initiative, Spitzer, who was in the process of backing away from some of his proposed cuts in state funding for hospitals and nursing homes, agreed to the inclusion of the Chernobyl funding. (Spitzer ultimately achieved an estimated $1 billion savings in health care costs.) Branovan gave the greatest credit to Brook-Krasny, a former rival for leadership of the Russian community, but now a staunch political ally, remarking, “Having Alec in the Assembly helped a lot. This is a great project, but there are a lot of great projects that never receive funding. To achieve that, you need someone to take it to the front, and Alec accomplished that.” Gene Borsh, director of the Civic Voter Education Initiative, a Russian community group which organized the lobbying trip to Albany, commented, “The backing for the screening by Silver and Bruno put pressure on Spitzer not to veto this. After Weinstein, Brook-Krasny and Golden met with the governor, he agreed to give it a line in the budget.”

Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf remarked, “Now that the Russian community has elected an assemblyperson—no small feat—they’ll obviously be doing their best to get government funding. They will become even more powerful if the Democrats take control of the State Senate next year, as many predict, because then Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn), who has many Russians in his district and fights for funding of that community, will be in the majority and be able to deliver more.”Brook-Krasny said he was “proud to have played a role in getting this funding, the first state funding directed at the Russian-speaking community and something that has the potential to save thousands of lives. Yet this achievement is also the result of the hard work of people like Branovan and Borsh and of the whole Russian community leadership working together as a team.”

Once the program kicks off, persons wishing to be tested will be asked to call (888) 426-1986 to arrange a screening. Branovan, who will administer the overall program, said, “Our job will be to make sure that the right tests are done and the data base is kept.” He said none of the state funding will go to himself or any of the other doctors who participate in the program; but will instead pay for equipment, mobile teams and support staff. “Of course, doctors who see more patients will make more money, which is fine,” Branovan said. “That is the incentive for doctors to get involved.” He said that in the case of most patients, the cost of the screening will be covered by private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, but as a condition for their participation in the program, doctors will have to agree to screen even those patients who do not have insurance. “That’s the trade off,” Branovan said. Branovan will lead a conference at the United Nations on thyroid cancer among Chernobyl victims on April 20. He said that he is especially concerned about reaching those who were children at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, but today are in their late 20’s or early 30’s. “Unlike older people, much of this population does not read Russian-language newspapers or listen to Russian radio or television,” said the doctor. “Many of them go to American-born doctors who are not necessarily aware of the looming danger of the spread of thyroid cancer among this population. We will have to reach them by encouraging their parents and grandparents to make them aware of the need to take part in the screening.”Branovan concluded, “Fortunately, thyroid cancer is one of the ‘good cancers’ in the sense that it is eminently treatable if caught in time. So our paramount challenge will be to make sure that the maximum number of people get the screening.”