Health reform: why stakes for women are especially high

Women are more vulnerable to a healthcare system with soaring costs and with restrictions that hurt them specifically.

Russel A. Daniels/AP
Women at the Women's Community Clinic in San Francisco, Calif. watch President Obama's speech on Health Care on Wednesday Sept. 9.

More men than women lack health insurance in America. The breakdown of the uninsured population, to be exact, is 46 percent men, 38 percent women, and 16 percent children (those under 18), according to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.

But by many other measures, women face steeper healthcare challenges than men. Women interact with the healthcare system more often, because of female-specific health needs, and so are more vulnerable to a system with soaring costs and with restrictions that hurt women specifically.

"The current market doesn’t work very well for women,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) of Illinois, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, speaking Friday at a breakfast with reporters.

She and other Democrats from the women’s caucus cite examples:

• Women who purchase insurance in the individual market, not as part of a company plan, face steep differences in cost compared with men. For example, women age 25 are typically charged between 6 and 45 percent more than men of that age for identical coverage, according to the National Women’s Law Center. This practice, known as “gender rating,” would be banned under the main House reform bill, H.R. 3200.

• Many insurance policies exclude coverage for maternity care or require a separate rider for coverage. The House legislation requires insurers to cover maternity and well-baby care.

• Many insurance companies consider having had a Caesarean section a preexisting condition. And in nine states, insurers can reject victims of domestic violence from coverage. Proposed legislation would ban exclusions for preexisting conditions.

The state of the economy has had ripple effects in women’s healthcare. In general, women are more likely to be economically vulnerable than men and therefore less able to cope with mounting healthcare bills. More than half of medical bankruptcies are filed by female-headed households, according to a study published last month in the American Journal of Medicine.

Nearly 1.7 million women have lost their health insurance during the recession – 71 percent due to a spouse’s job loss and 29 percent due to their own job loss, according to the Joint Economic Committee, or JEC.

Women between the ages of 55 and 64 are particularly vulnerable to losing health coverage when their husbands transition from employer-based health insurance to Medicare, the JEC notes.

Following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s renewed push for a “public option” – a government-run insurance plan to compete with the private insurers – Representative Schakowsky predicted that the final legislation reaching President Obama’s desk would include this component.

The health legislation working its way through the Senate Finance Committee does not contain a public option, but Schakowsky said it would be added in the House-Senate conference committee that hammers out the final version.

“The people want that,” said Rep. Lois Capps (D) of California at the breakfast.

Schakowsky called the public option the best way to bring down insurance rates.

“The public option is the strongest cost-containment piece to put into the bill,” she says.


Health reform's new messenger this week

With Obama tied up at the UN and G20, Vice President Biden has been out front on health reform. Click here for some of his comments.


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