Monthly Archives: November 2011

Pennsylvania: Stop Insurers from Denying Essential Maternity Coverage to Women

Women in Pennsylvania need comprehensive maternity insurance coverage.  While federal and state laws protect access to maternity coverage for many women who receive health insurance through their employers, there is no law ensuring maternity benefits to women in Pennsylvania who purchase an individual policy of insurance.  Individual health insurance policies typically do not cover maternity care, leaving these women at risk of having inadequate or no insurance when they become pregnant.  In addition, women who are pregnant when they apply for insurance often are denied coverage for pregnancy, which is considered a pre-existing condition.  The Affordable Care Act (ACA) may protect these women by 2014 because it requires maternity coverage as part of its essential benefits package.  However the ACA does not define what maternity benefits means. So the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must adopt a broad definition of maternity care to make sure full coverage is provided in 2014.  In the meantime, women need full coverage now

To fill the gap, Pennsylvania State Senator Farnese has introduced the Insuring Motherhood Bill, S.B. 1063, which would (1) ensure that individual and small group health plans provide women with essential maternity coverage and (2) stop insurers from denying maternity coverage to women by classifying pregnancy as a pre-existing condition.

Comprehensive Maternity Coverage is important for the health of women and children.  Early initiation of prenatal care allows the medical provider to diagnose and treat problems with the pregnancy as soon as possible and also gives the provider an opportunity to educate women about behavioral risks, such as smoking.  This type of care is critically important for reducing the maternal mortality rate, reducing the rate of neonatal death, lowering the likelihood of having a baby with low birth weight, and lowering the likelihood of delivering preterm.  Postpartum care is also important for addressing a range of health issues, such as postpartum depression, breastfeeding, bladder/bowel dysfunction, and concerns about sexuality and contraception. 

The Women’s Law Project (WLP) believes that comprehensive maternity coverage is vital to meet the health needs of mothers and babies, and so strives to eliminate sex discrimination in insurance and to expand insurance coverage.  To meet this goal, WLP managing attorney Terry Fromson recently commented before HHS about the need to define maternity benefits broadly, while implementing the ACA.  Fromson emphasized the importance of defining maternity and newborn coverage to include prenatal care, hospitalization for delivery, and postpartum care to ensure that insurers do not deny these important elements of coverage to women the way they often do today. 

Prior to 2014, the effective date of the ACA, Pennsylvania must pass S.B. 1063 to provide women and newborns with insurance coverage for essential care.  WLP worked with the Maternity Care Coalition and Senator Farnese’s office on drafting the bill, and has joined the Insuring Motherhood Coalition, which seeks to pass S.B. 1063.  

To get involved in the campaign to insure healthy motherhood: 

Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201

Also see Women Care About Healthcare on WLP’s website.

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Filed under Childbirth, Health Care, Health insurance, Maternity Coverage, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Divide and Conquer: The Wal-Mart Lawsuits Are Back

Four months after the United States Supreme Court, without ruling on the merits of the sex discrimination case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, told Betty Dukes and her co-plaintiffs that their lawsuit against Wal-Mart could not proceed as a nationwide class action, the plaintiffs have re-organized and are trying again with smaller, regional class actions that may be permitted by the Supreme Court case. 

We blogged about the original class action lawsuit in March, when the Women’s Law Project signed an amicus brief authored by the National Women’s Law Center and the ACLU in support of the plaintiffs.  The class included 1.5 million women who work or have worked for Wal-Mart, women we believe were properly joined together in a single class action because Wal-Mart’s discriminatory decision-making processes affected all of them.  As statistical evidence shows, female Wal-Mart employees in all regions earned less, held lower-paying jobs, and received fewer promotions than men, even though on average they worked longer for the company than men. 

In Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), the Supreme Court rejected the possibility of a nationwide class action, concluding that the members of the proposed class did not satisfy the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 (a) of having questions of law or fact in common (“commonality”) and that their claim for backpay did not meet the requirements of Rule 23(b)(2).  By departing from established understandings of “commonality,” transforming it from a “threshold criterion” that is “easily satisfied” into a much harder inquiry to satisfy (see Justice Ginsburg’s dissent), the Supreme Court bent over backwards to make it harder for employees and consumers to challenge big corporations in court.

 Now, the battle is on again as women bring class action suits region by region: a case was filed against Wal-Mart in California federal court on October 27, and another in Texas federal court the next day.  Attorney Joseph Sellers says that we can expect to see an “armada of cases” across the nation in the near future.

By splitting up the nationwide lawsuit into many regional lawsuits, the plaintiffs hope to increase their chances at success by defining smaller classes and adjusting their arguments to conform to the Supreme Court’s anti-employee ruling.  Legal action against Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer and a bastion of gender discrimination, is as necessary today as it was when the plaintiffs originally filed their nationwide class action a decade ago. We continue to support the women as they pursue civil justice region by region.

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Filed under Employment, Equal pay, Equality, Sex Discrimination, Supreme Court

Increasing Number of Homeless Women Veterans

The number of women veterans who become homeless after returning to civilian life is on the rise. This increasing rate of homelessness among women veterans is due to many factors that affect all genders who have served in the military such as brain injuries, drug and alcohol abuse, and post-traumatic stress.  However, the increase in the homeless women veteran population is also likely due to stresses that disproportionately affect women such as sexual assault, domestic violence, single parenthood, and pregnancy.

As we have reported previously, there is a shockingly high number of servicewomen who are sexually assaulted while in active service and the military has often failed to deal with the crime appropriately. Trying to cope after surviving rape in the military is one factor that is likely to blame for the rise in the women veteran homeless population.  Indeed, the Huffington Post reported “that 20 percent of female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have experienced Military Sexual Abuse, a trauma that is more likely to impede a veteran’s transition back to society than a combat-related trauma.”

While some women veterans must try to cope with trauma experienced while in military service, other servicewomen, such as Ruth Donaldson, must try to transition back to civilian life while experiencing violence at home.

Donaldson said she was diagnosed with PTSD [after having served as an ammunition specialist], even though she did not serve in combat. She moved out [of her home] after her then-husband, a soldier, physically abused her, she said.

She managed to get an apartment, but after she lost her gas station job, she couldn’t afford her rent.

A friend told her about Jubilee House [a homeless shelter for female veterans], where Donaldson now has a room for her and her son, Dante.

Like Donaldson, many women veterans find themselves struggling to support not only themselves but children after returning from military service.  Increasing awareness of this issue has produced more homeless shelters that specialize in the type of services women veterans often need, such as beds for their children and care for those who have survived military sexual trauma.  However, shelters that provide these services, while growing in number, are still rare.  Stephanie Felder, the Fayetteville, NC Veteran Affairs homeless program coordinator told the Los Angeles Times that “the community is more aware [of the need for increased services for homeless female veterans]…But there just isn’t [sic] enough beds [in homeless shelters for veterans], especially for women and children.”

The Huffington Post reported that “homelessness among female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has increased every year for the last six years — from 150 in 2006 to 1,700 this year.” To find out more about the needs of homeless veterans, visit the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans website.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Family Violence, Homeless, Military, Rape, Sexual Assault, Sexual harassment, Violence Against Women, Welfare, Women Veterans

Scary News: PA ranks 13th in Nation for Rate at which Men Kill Women

It was just in time for Halloween when PennLive brought us some terrifying news about domestic violence homicide rates in Pennsylvania.

Based on data collected in 2009, the rate of man-on-woman homicide in Pennsylvania is higher than it has been in the fourteen years that the Violence Policy Center has been conducting this study.  Pennsylvania is now the 13th most dangerous place in the country for women in abusive relationships – a ranking in which we fare worse than any of our neighboring states. 

Of the 102 women killed that year, 58 were wives, girlfriends or ex-lovers, and 85 of them knew their killer, according to the study.  Four were killed by strangers.

This Violence Policy Center study doesn’t analyze causes, so Pennsylvanians are left guessing why our numbers are so grim. 

The recession is an obvious factor:  reports of abuse have been shown to escalate under financial stress, and women in abusive situations have fewer resources to support themselves after leaving their partners.  Domestic violence programs also tend to suffer when the economy is bad, as the government is often less willing to provide funding for such programs and individuals don’t have as much money to donate.  During times of economic trouble, agencies such as Pittsburgh’s Crisis Center North often find themselves struggling to meet an increased need for services on a severely decreased budget.

Violence experts in Pennsylvania warn that the state faces specific risks as a result of conservative attitudes about relationships and inconsistent enforcement of the laws that protect women.  Penn State University professor Cheryl Dellasega comments:

There’s all this attention paid to school and domestic violence in the cities, but there are people isolated in small communities, where prevalent mind-sets are more conservative….[a]nd a lot of times in a rural area you are staying close to family so you have influences on you that are very traditional … about women’s roles, women working.

According to domestic violence educators in Pennsylvania, the state’s laws regarding gun restriction in cases of domestic violence are actually fairly good.  Enforcement, however, has not been particularly successful.  In a state where large differences are seen among counties, and local forces tend to influence courtroom outcomes, judges across Pennsylvania have repeatedly failed to confiscate guns, deny bail, or execute protection-from-abuse orders as the law dictates.  As a result, women have paid with their lives. 

For more information about domestic violence and to find resources, please visit the links below.

 Domestic Violence Resources:

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Filed under Domestic violence, Family Violence, Homicide, Pennsylvania, Violence Against Women

PA Department of Public Welfare Blames the Poor and Penalizes the Disabled

On October 26, 2011, Tim Costa, the Executive Deputy Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW), testified about implementation of Governor Tom Corbett’s new state budget, which cut hundreds of millions of dollars from DPW programs that help the poor and disabled.  Costa said:

[T]he welfare system, over time, has contributed to the problems that the country now faces.For years, if not decades, our welfare system has fostered unhealthy levels of dependency and family fragmentation that represents a staggering loss for our country and our state. The reality is that low income individuals today are far less capable of self-reliance – especially in this downturn – than they were when means-tested welfare became a growth industry in the late 1960s. Moreover, a much larger portion of our population today is welfare dependent than it was in 1970. President Reagan once remarked that we “declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” He was and is correct.  Therefore, our long-range challenge is to transform our welfare system so that it becomes part of the solution, not the problem (Costa Testimony PDF).

Invoking the specter of President Reagan, Costa repeats discredited welfare myths that poor people and government programs are primarily to blame for poverty and that anti-poverty programs contribute to the problem (we blogged about a related welfare myth—the “welfare queen”—a year ago).  According to these myths, a reiteration of the controversial “culture of poverty”  arguments popularized in the 1960s, the poor grow dependent on government assistance programs and develop certain behaviors, such as weak work ethics, that keep them in poverty.  Here, Costa uses these stereotypes of the poor to excuse the Corbett Administration and the Pennsylvania General Assembly for turning their backs on the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians in tough economic times.

These myths persist despite no evidence that public assistance actually causes impoverished individuals to choose to stay poor simply to continue receiving welfare.  It is telling that Costa never mentions the welfare amounts supposedly so high that they would compel someone to forgo paid employment: in fact, a mother with two children in most Pennsylvania counties receives a mere $403 a month. It is ludicrous to assume that anyone, much less a parent, would be discouraged from working by such minimal assistance. At current levels, assistance through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is still well below the federal poverty line.  It is more likely that most individuals who stay on public assistance for extended periods of time do so because of real economic problems outside of their control.

As DPW cuts government programs for the poor, more Pennsylvanians are slipping into poverty.  In 2010, the Commonwealth had a 13.4 percent poverty rate .  Poverty disproportionately burdens women, especially single mothers and ethnic minorities, as discrimination, pregnancy, caretaking obligations, and the impact of domestic violence and sexual assault create barriers to gainful employment.  It is particularly difficult to find gainful employment today.  According to a report by the Pew Trust, the percent of unemployed who have been unemployed for more than a year surged recently to over 30 percent, more than double the highest percentage recorded over the past forty years. There are simply too few jobs, and those that exist pay too little for workers to support their families.

Furthermore, cutting DPW programs ignores the economic boost anti-poverty measures can provide: every $5 in new SNAP benefits, for example, translates into $9 of total community spending, as families use their benefits supporting stores, warehouses, truck drivers, and farms.

Costa also boasts in his testimony about the ways in which DPW has turned its back on the disabled and gravely ill by dropping people from Medical Assistance.  Needy and deserving recipients have lost coverage due to minor paperwork errors beyond the individual recipient’s control.  These arbitrary actions, taken under the guise of rooting out “waste and fraud,” have harmed real people, such as children with cerebral palsy who have been wrongly dropped from Medical Assistance. 

With this state budget, the Corbett Administration, DPW, and the General Assembly have let down the people of Pennsylvania.  We need more from our state government than arbitrary practices and excuses for selfish, short-sighted policies.


Filed under Economic Justice, Government, Pennsylvania, Welfare

Undergraduate Women Face Discrimination, Fewer Leadership Opportunities

In March 2011, the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership at Princeton University found  that “there are differences—subtle but real—between the ways most Princeton female undergraduates and most male undergraduates approach their college years, and in the ways they navigate Princeton when they arrive.” The Committee also saw that their findings seem to be indicative of broader trends at undergraduate universities—“Through the work of our subcommittee on comparative data, we learned that many of the patterns we observed at Princeton are common on other campuses.”

One important difference that the Committee found was that women are less likely to run for elected positions for a variety of reasons. Some undergraduates who were interviewed said that they chose not to run for a traditional elected position because they doubted how much change they could affect in that position whereas some were just intimidated by the public visibility that is involved in a campaign for elective office. However, there were also “women who do consider running for visible campus posts, especially a presidency [but don’t run since they] get the message from peers that such posts are more appropriately sought by men.”

Sexism that prevents women from running for leadership positions on college campuses is not just external. The Committee found that internalized sexism also plays a role. “Female undergraduates may say that they do not have the skills or experience to run for a highly visible post, that others (usually men) are better qualified. Even women who are regarded as strong leaders by their peers and faculty and staff members may not see themselves in such a light.” For this reason, women are more likely to need encouragement in order to reach their potential. Whereas “men are more likely to consider themselves plausible candidates for office or prizes and step forward without special encouragement; women often report that such encouragement led them to take the steps that produced significant achievements.”

Of course, gender discrimination does not affect undergraduate women only around issues of leadership. While “male undergraduates may also feel pressures to conform to a certain set of campus norms… the pressures seem to be especially marked for women.” Undergraduate women at Princeton “sometimes feel that they are expected to measure up to an impossible standard. They are supposed to be smart, involved in many different activities (as are men), and also ‘pretty, sexy, thin, nice, and friendly,’ as one undergraduate reported.”

You can read the entire report here. You can stay updated on various efforts to make campuses a better environment for women at the Feministing Campus page.

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Filed under Education, Equality, Sex Discrimination, Sexism

“It’s the Economy, Stupid” – Occupy Pennsylvania and Legislative Priorities

Like most Americans, Pennsylvanians want jobs, fair taxation, and smarter spending… but all they’re getting are ill-advised spending cuts, bickering across party lines and moral grandstanding about women’s healthcare. 

A few weeks ago, the Occupy movement, a grassroots movement for corporate accountability that attracted so much attention on Wall Street, came to Pennsylvania. Local Occupiers set up camp in Philadelphia in the first week of October, and in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg on October 16th.

 These Occupations have sponsored a broad range of activities from civil disobedience in Philadelphia, to children’s story hours, community art projects and anti-police violence demonstrations in Pittsburgh, to a Halloween party and protest parade this past weekend in Harrisburg. Occupiers are notably politically and intellectually diverse, residing in a tent city where Marxists sleep next door to Ron Paul libertarians, who share donated food and resources with union leaders and die-hard Obama supporters.

In fact, they are so politically diverse that they’ve been widely mocked as disorganized and unable to reach consensus. Critics have publicly asked, “What are these Occupiers so angry about?” These charts speak to the varied interests of the demonstrations’ participants.

The Occupiers are a diverse group, and they don’t all want to end the Federal Reserve or elect the Green Party. But the demands and grievances they do share resonate with many Americans; according to a recent Associated Press poll, over one-third of Americans support the Occupy movement.

According to The Huffington Post:

The protesters cite the economic crisis as a key reason for their unhappiness. The unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent nationally. Many homeowners owe more than their homes are worth. Foreclosures are rampant. And many young people – the key demographic of the protesters – can’t find jobs or live on their own.

The most consistent key factor in all this anger – repeated twice in the above quotation – is unemployment. Jobs. People who had jobs lost them; people looking for jobs can’t find them; people who have jobs are dealing with cuts in their hours, pay, and benefits that make it harder to support themselves on those jobs. People in bad job situations can’t leave their jobs because they wouldn’t be able to find another source of income. All this job anxiety makes people’s lives uncertain, and that uncertainty is causing anger, frustration, and restlessness among American citizens.

You’d imagine that lawmaking officials in our state, wanting to get re-elected, would be scrambling to pass legislation that would create more job opportunities for the 8.2% of the Pennsylvania labor force that was reported out of work in September 2011.

This has not come to pass. In the past year, PA has slashed the budgets for public education (which gives people the work skills they need to get jobs), libraries (which enable people without home internet access to fill out online job applications), and public transportation (which gets people to and from their jobs). This is, of course, to say nothing of the people currently hired by schools, libraries, and bus and train companies who will be laid off as these cuts take effect. 

Pennsylvania’s current policies lay the groundwork for massive, long-term unemployment on a much larger scale than we’re seeing right now – and that’s just what the legislature is doing in its spare time!

In the first six months of 2011, Pennsylvania lawmakers spent a whopping one-third of their voting session days at the Capitol working to restrict access to safe, legal abortion at a time when and one in six children in the state lives in poverty.

Our lawmakers need to check their priorities soon, or Pennsylvania’s children – who are already suffering – will grow up with fewer job opportunities than their parents have right now. Although not everyone is rushing to Occupy the nearest city, most agree with the message that PA’s legislators could serve constituents better by making economic recovery a priority.

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Filed under Abortion Access, Democracy, Economic Justice, Employment, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Reproductive Rights