White House Holds Town Hall on Women’s Health

Molly Cohen, WLP Intern

With the Supreme Court’s ruling on the 2010 Affordable Care Act looming on the horizon, the White House recently held a town hall meeting on Women’s Health to tout the benefits of the Act. Panel members included Valerie Jarrett (Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls), Kathleen Sebelius (Secretary of Health and Human Services), Judy Waxman (Vice President of the National Women’s Law Center), Mayra Alvarez (Director of Public Health Policy in the Office of Health Reform, HHS), and other female leaders in Washington. The White House promoted the event as “an interactive, open dialogue about how the health care law, the Affordable Care Act, is improving the health of women and their families” and encouraged viewers to submit questions via Twitter and Facebook.

Secretary Sebelius spoke frankly about the discrimination women experience throughout the healthcare system. As our recent report, Through the Lens of EQUALITY: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women also illustrates, women are regularly denied coverage if they have ever had breast cancer, cervical cancer, a cesarean section, or medical treatment for injuries resulting from domestic violence or sexual assault.

Those who do qualify for coverage are subject to a practice known as “gender rating,” in which women pay substantially higher premiums than men of the same age. In fact, a Pennsylvania study found that some insurance companies charge higher premiums to non-smoking women than male smokers of the same age. At the White House town hall, Sebelius remarked, “Now let’s say you were lucky and healthy. Even then, insurers could charge women up to fifty percent more than men just for being a woman. Essentially, this meant that being a woman was, in itself, a pre-existing condition.”

The ACA, if fully implemented, will make gender rating and the practice of withholding coverage on the basis of a preexisting condition illegal in the individual and small group markets. The Act also greatly expands the range of preventive care covered by insurance. Section 1001, for example, requires new health insurance plans to offer all screenings and services recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, free of charge to the patient. This includes regular mammograms for women over 40 and screenings for cervical cancer. Section 1302 includes maternal and newborn care in the list of “essential health benefits” new policies must cover, beginning January 2014. Women will no longer have to pay co-pays on prenatal visits, folic acid supplements, consultations with lactation specialists, or screenings for conditions such as gestational diabetes and anemia.

Secretary Sebelius explained that by making preventative care measures more affordable, the ACA seeks to eradicate existing inequalities. Currently, African American women are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other group, while Latinas have the highest rates of cervical cancer.  Under the current healthcare system, low-income women, especially those without insurance, are forced to delay seeking medical care because of the financial burden of doctors’ visits. They are therefore more likely to receive inadequate care and to die prematurely.

While a recent report found that the number of uninsured young Americans is on the decline, any progress made under the ACA is shadowed by the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming Supreme Court decision. If the White House’s worst-case scenario is realized and the Court strikes down the ACA in its entirety? Sebelius warned this outcome would have a “pretty cataclysmic impact.” In a blog issued after the town hall on Women’s Health, she stated:

“…for women, the law means peace of mind. Peace of mind that no matter their circumstance there will be a health system that works for them and cares about their needs. That’s what the law is all about.”

If you want to know more about the link between sex bias and adverse health effects in women, please read our new report Through the Lens of EQUALITY: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women. The Affordable Care Act is an important step for women in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.

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