Health reform puts women in harm’s way

By M. Tracey Brooks for the Times Union

The people of New York and the nation should be outraged at the sacrifices being made in health care reform to the detriment of women. After taking a major hit in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in March, women’s health care faced three more attacks in July alone.

The health care reform package passed in March contains severe new abortion coverage restrictions. Federal funding of abortion has always been prohibited. The new law, however, severely restricts access to abortion coverage in the insurance exchanges, even for individuals who pay for coverage with their own money.

Women (or their spouses, partners or parents) will have to write one check for abortion coverage and a separate check for the rest of their coverage. Insurance industry experts believe the administrative nightmare of keeping these funds separate will dissuade insurers from maintaining abortion coverage in their plans. Congress sacrificed this important women’s health care benefit to pass the reform package.

Attacks on women’s health care continue. In July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed a rule to eliminate coverage for abortion in the states’ new temporary high-risk insurance plans, with the exception of rape, incest or to preserve the life of the woman. There is no exception to preserve the health of a woman with such conditions as kidney disease or cancer.

This shortsighted decision discounts the fact that women with pre-existing conditions are the patients who are most at risk of experiencing a complicated pregnancy and may need an abortion as an option. Individuals and families will not be able to pay for such coverage with their own money if they are insured through these high-risk plans.

The department also released its list of preventive health care services soon to be available at no cost to consumers. Birth control was not on the list, and its inclusion as a no-cost benefit may not be decided until 2011. Once approved, it could take months for insurance companies to implement it.

There is no reason to wait until 2012 when there is an abundance of medical and scientific data proving the effectiveness of birth control in preventing unintended pregnancies and reducing infant and maternal illness and death.

Yet another attack on reproductive health came in the House Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Ranking member Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., proposed an amendment on Health and Human Services funds that was essentially the same as the Stupak-Pitts Amendment defeated during health care reform negotiations that would have banned any abortion coverage in health insurance exchanges, even if paid with personal funds. Thankfully, Tiahrt’s amendment was voted down, protecting women’s health care — for now.

One of the most important health care reform promises has been broken. We were assured that no one would lose existing benefits. However, all women and their families have lost because religious and other anti-abortion activists have continually exercised undue influence over lawmakers, and Congress has succumbed.

Using access to abortion and contraception as a political bargaining chip in major U.S. policy decisions is offensive and shortsighted. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the right to privacy encompasses women’s access to full reproductive health care. Infant and maternal morbidity and mortality have decreased dramatically. We should not have to continue the fight for access to abortion and contraception nearly 40 years later.

Will women’s health care continue to be sacrificed with each new implementation phase of the most sweeping health care reform of our lifetime?

If so, the women who lose are our spouses, our daughters, our sisters and our mothers. Putting greater restrictions on women’s comprehensive health care will never put Americans in a winning position.

M. Tracey Brooks is president and CEO of Family Planning Advocates of New York State.