Joan Vennochi

Taking a hit on health care? Why, that’s women’s work

By Joan Vennochi
November 19, 2009

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WOMEN MUST always fight to make sure they are not thrown under the political bus.

The latest example is health care reform.

First, women were on the losing end of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, adopted by the House of Representatives, just before it passed its health reform bill. The amendment prohibits any taxpayer-subsidized health care plan from covering abortions.

Every pro-choice lawmaker who voted for it - including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in Washington - argues it was more important to advance the overall reform agenda than to let abortion rights trip it up.

The abortion language that majority leader Harry Reid included in the Senate bill unveiled last night is less restrictive than the House version. But the fight isn’t over. The Stupak amendment empowered the antiabortion movement, especially the Catholic Church. They will press hard, knowing how much Democrats want a health care bill.

Democrats, including President Obama, could be forced to accept the same argument as Pelosi: The perfect is the enemy of the possible, when women’s rights represent the perfect.

Now, a government panel is telling women in their 40s that they don’t need routine mammograms. According to the US Preventive Services Task Force, the benefits of screening are supposedly outweighed by the potential for unnecessary tests and procedures and the anxiety they might cause.

You want anxious women? Take away health insurance coverage for routine mammograms.

Yes, these are simply guidelines; they are not yet part of any legislative proposal. The panel said it did not consider costs in the analysis.

On their face, they don’t stop any woman who wants a mammogram from getting one at any age.

But the panel’s guidelines can help health insurance companies position themselves down the road for this high anxiety-inducing outcome - the denial of coverage for routine mammograms for women between the ages of 40 and 49.

That, in turn, creates a two-tier health care system: Those who can afford to pay for screening on their own, and those who can’t. Those who can’t afford it are left to ponder the somber words of Dr. Daniel Kopans, a radiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.

Kopans told The Globe that the panel’s recommendations “will condemn women ages 40 to 49 to unnecessary deaths from breast cancer.’’ Maybe Sarah Palin’s “death panel’’ warning isn’t hyperbole after all.

Health care reform requires trade-offs. It’s built on the principle of “shared responsibility.’’ Individuals must have coverage. Employers must provide coverage. The government will help those who can’t afford it. In the end, millions of Americans who don’t have coverage now will be covered. It’s a noble goal, embraced by Obama and promoted by the Democratic leadership.

And somehow, health care costs will be reduced. But, at whose expense will those reductions come?

As women are finding out, every aspect of health care reform won’t be win-win for everyone. Cost control is a necessary part of the reform equation. But no one has yet cut treatment for erectile dysfunction. Why are women the first losers out of the reform box?

It’s disappointing, especially given Pelosi’s position. Her defense of what happened regarding the Stupak amendment provides coverto every man in Congress, not to mention the one in the White House. Pelosi may believe, as she has said, that the greater good was served by advancing a bill and relying on the Senate to remove the abortion restriction. But if it turns out the restriction remains, how ironic will it be that a major setback on abortion rights advanced on the watch of the first female, pro-choice speaker of the House?

If that happens, it is more evidence that women are the first to be sacrificed in the name of political compromise.

As for those recommendations regarding mammograms, that is more evidence that when you need to cut corners, women are at the head of the line.

It’s all about the greater good, the argument goes. The first headlines out of Washington show that women should pay close attention to what they are being asked to give up in the name of health care reform.

Joan Vennochi’s e-mail address is

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