By Donna P. Hall

A massive, historic and overwhelmingly positive change for women’s lives is coming our way, in the form of the health care proposals now being considered in the House and Senate.

While television networks and newspapers were recently full of commentary and reporting on Rep. Joe Wilson’s loud outburst, the quiet fact remains that when health care reform passes, more women and their families will have coverage than ever before in our nation’s history.

That is no small thing, in a country where an estimated 21 million women lack health insurance, where over half of all medical bankruptcies are filed by female-headed households, and where single mothers and young women dominate the ranks of the uninsured.

The pending reform of the American health care system will -- for the first time ever -- create a seamless, lifelong continuum of care for women, for whom the status quo health care system has been an abject failure.

For the first time, women will be able to participate in a health care system in which:

  • They won’t be charged more because of their gender;

  • Maternity and reproductive health will be part of a basic care package;

  • An affordability provision will subsidize those who can’t afford insurance;

  • The system will put a cap on out-of-pocket costs so families don’t go broke;

  • No American can be denied health coverage because of a pre-existing medical condition, including breast cancer, pregnancy or evidence of “uninsurability” such as being a victim of domestic violence; and Key preventative tests, like mammograms and pap smears, will be included in basic care.
The inclusion of women’s reproductive health in these plans is so critical to the health of America that the deans of 39 of America’s 50 schools of public health have endorsed a scientific, data-driven report stating that such treatments and services be part of any national health plan.

According to a report published by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, “a well-woman standard of care -- one that includes access to comprehensive care and services essential to reproductive health -- will ensure that women can attain good health, maintain it through their reproductive years and age well.”

This is good news for everyone -- not just women -- because the inability of the current system to adequately serve women’s health care needs has come at a staggering expense that is borne by everyone. One recent study estimates that women’s chronic disease conditions cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The direct costs of women’s cardiovascular disease, which impacts 43 million American women, are estimated at $162 billion annually. The direct medical costs of diabetes on women totals over $58 billion. The direct medical costs of osteoporosis, which impacts 8 million women, are estimated at nearly $14 billion annually. The direct medical costs of breast cancer are estimated at $9 billion.

Of course, it should surprise no one that any proposal that addresses women’s reproductive health comes with a vociferous debate on the subject of abortion coverage. The House Education and Labor Committee has effectively addressed this issue by adopting an “abortion neutrality” approach -- that is, by allowing private insurance plans to continue to decide whether to cover abortions (nearly 90 percent of them already do) and by maintaining existing restrictions on public funding for abortions. Onerous amendments that would have denied coverage even for private health insurance plans have already been defeated.

A number of national polls have shown that Americans strongly believe that health insurance should include the full range of women’s reproductive health services and that medical experts – not politicians -- should decide the details of a benefits package. The current bills in committee reflect that view.

By insuring coverage of prevention and basic health services like maternity benefits, the proposed reforms will create a system that provides health care, not just sick care, for women and ultimately all Americans.

That news may not be as exciting as a heckling Congressman -- not to mention a finger-chomping activist and gun-toting firebrands -- but it’s an enduring, important, positive change that will be with us long after the headlines have faded.
Hall is the President and CEO of the Women Donors Network based in San Francisco, California.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 10/09