Don't Ignore Women's Health

Bernadine Healy died last week. She was the first woman, the only woman, formally named to be Director of the National Institutes of Health, the greatest source of biomedical research funding in the world.

A sometimes provocative and controversial figure, she deserves great credit for representing the health needs of women and initiating much needed research on women's health after menopause. Her passing serves as a reminder of battles fought to draw our attention to women's health. It's also a call to action -- because these battles are not over.

Upcoming changes to health care access and affordability, the basis for the recently passed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will change the health care landscape for everyone.

But this roll-out of new insurance plans will especially affect women. One in five women is uninsured. More than two-thirds of Medicaid's beneficiaries are women, as are the majority of Medicare recipients.

Currently, women are less likely to be able to afford health care, are required to pay higher costs for care in the form of insurance premiums and co-payments, more quickly meet insurance spending caps and, as a 2009 report from The Commonwealth Fund indicates, are more likely to forgo medical care due to cost.

Women are the greatest utilizers of the health care system, as a 2010 report from the Commonwealth Fund tells us. They live longer than men, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has well documented. In fact, women live three decades beyond their reproductive years.

Women also suffer from chronic diseases at a higher rate than men, diseases such as autoimmune disorders, arthritis, depression, and osteoporosis, and these disorders result in higher rates of disability and attendant care.

How we change insurance coverage, access and affordability, whether public or private, will determine whether women receive the care they need.

One of the most contested battles in the recent passage of the Affordable Care Act pivoted on whether abortion should be covered in health insurance planning. But women's health -- and, in fact, women's reproductive health -- is so much more than that.

Even if we grant that the health reform debate included consideration of minimum coverage for women, it was only thanks to the initiative of Senator Barbara Mikulski that a second look was taken at whether preventive health care services for women were adequately represented. According to the non-profit Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, they were not.

It's indicative of the conversation we have about women's health that such a second look was necessary at all. Instead, let's remember that women are in need of affordable comprehensive care which provides adequate preventive and other health services, and is not defined by reproductive status.

When Congress re-convenes, and state policymakers make choices regarding their public insurance programs and new insurance exchanges, we need to remind our representatives that attending to women's health, what Bernadine Healy called The Third Suffrage movement, can save women's lives.

Yes, we are struggling with costs, deficits and debt. Yet, for those who think it is a good idea that a singular solution to our woes is to overturn health reform and simply cut taxes, please be aware that it is the women you love who will be most affected.