Jennifer Henry was appalled last week when state health officials announced significant cuts to breast cancer screening services for low-income women.

By the time the shock had worn off, she had decided to do something about it.

Henry, the executive director of Links for Life, a charitable organization that for 17 years has helped fill gaps in breast cancer services for Kern County women, said the new cuts in mammography screening through the state's "Every Woman Counts" program are just plain dangerous.

The Every Woman Counts Cancer Detection Program has been "a lifesaver for a large segment of California women," Henry said.

For years it has paid the cost of mammogram screening for uninsured women not covered by Medi-Cal. But beginning New Year's Day, the program will "temporarily cease new breast cancer screening enrollments" and stop covering mammograms for women ages 40 to 49.

"The thought that they would be denied a mammogram or another screening process was almost unbearable to us," Henry said.

As a result, the Links for Life board voted this week to dedicate an additional $100,000 toward mammograms, ultrasounds or needle biopsies for Kern County women who are under or uninsured.

Henry says the funds, available beginning Jan. 1, will be used to cover services for women between the ages of 40 and 49 and women in their 50s who are not enrolled but would otherwise qualify for Every Woman Counts screening.

Unfortunately, Links for Life cannot cover the cost of annual screening mammograms, Henry said. But they can help women who have symptomatic issues.

"If a woman discovers a lump or has a visible change in her breast, that's symptomatic and those are the women who need to contact us," she said.

The decision by state health officials has also awakened the wrath of care givers, lawmakers and others who argue that the cuts in services will result in more serious cancer cases and ultimately, higher costs for treatment.

A letter initiated by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and signed by several Democrats and Republicans in California's congressional delegation, urged the governor to rescind the cuts in services.

"This is the first sign of government involvement in health care and what the future would hold," Mccarthy said.

The cuts, he said, could also "give insurance companies a reason to say, 'The state did this. Why can't we?'"

McCarthy said he's concerned state health officials made the cuts based on "dollars and not best medical practices."

Every Woman Counts, funded largely by state tobacco taxes, will continue to provide breast screenings for women 50 and older who are currently in the program. Women 50 and older who are not in the program will likely be eligible when the suspension of enrollment ends in July.

The changes come just weeks after a federal task force set off a storm of criticism by saying most women in their 40s do not need regular mammograms. Some politicians have tried to link the federal recommendation to the state cuts.

But Al Lundeen, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said discussion about the possible cuts has been been ongoing for most of this year.

"The demand for this service continues to grow even as the revenue sources continue to decline," he said.

Links for Life's Jennifer Henry said the group will offer assistance until the state again covers breast cancer screening or until the funds dry up.

For details, call Links for Life at 322-5601.