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The Health Care Women Should Get Behind

A nurse discusses a flu vaccine with a woman on Sept. 14. Theirry Zoccolan/AP hide caption

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Theirry Zoccolan/AP

A nurse discusses a flu vaccine with a woman on Sept. 14.

Theirry Zoccolan/AP

For a different perspective, read commentator Carrie Lukas' piece on women and health care.

We will all be affected by health care reform. But for women in the United States, there are three striking issues that make health care reform all the more pressing: reproductive health, use of genetic information, and health care for people older than 65.

In terms of reproductive health: Prenatal and maternity care must be covered in all insurance plans (public or private). Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) recently said that he "didn't need" maternity care — but women (including Kyl's wife, mother and daughters) do need it. The infant mortality rate in the U.S. is worse than many industrialized and non-industrialized countries, and major causes of high infant mortality are the lack of access to prenatal care and the high number of low birth-weight babies. Contraception (including emergency contraception) should be covered as well; many insurers cover Viagra but not birth control pills. Better access to safe, effective contraception could reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and help lower the U.S. abortion rate.

Second, insurers should no longer be able to deny coverage due to genetic "pre-existing conditions." We now know that some forms of breast cancer are linked to particular genes, and in many states it is still legal for insurers to deny coverage if they find out that a woman (through absolutely no fault of her own) has inherited one of those genes. New discoveries in genetics are transforming medicine, but insurers should no longer be able to profit from genetic information by denying coverage when women need it most.

Susan B. Hansen (Ph. D. Stanford 1972) is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Her most recent book is Globalization and the Politics of Pay. She has published many articles on women's issues and reproductive rights. Courtesy of Susan Hansen hide caption

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Courtesy of Susan Hansen

Third, older women are far more dependent than men on public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Because they are employed part time, or work for a small company, or do not work outside the home, fewer women than men have health insurance through their employers. The future financial health of Medicare is crucial for women older than 65. A health care plan that would help control prescription drug prices, and reward hospitals that provide quality care at lower prices, could significantly reduce the soaring projected deficits facing Medicare.

And speaking of aging: Remember that life expectancy (for both men and women) is significantly longer in countries such as Japan, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany that provide universal health care. Because women tend to live longer than men, they are far more likely to end up in nursing homes and covered by Medicaid. Many nursing-home residents would prefer to remain in their own homes, but under current rules Medicaid provides far more coverage for nursing homes than for in-home care or assistance devices that would let older or disabled people live independently at lower costs. Changing these rules not only would save money but also would enhance quality of life for the aging.

Policymakers are long overdue to recognize that health care is a women's issue — and women must be prepared, educated and ardent to defend themselves.