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US Flunks Women’s Health

Kids might dread that report card that comes every winter, but a nationwide report card on women’s health doesn’t make officials nearly as anxious as it should.

According to the National Women’s Law Center’s latest report card on state and national health policy, no state got a “satisfactory” (S) grade on the group’s selected health measures, and only Vermont and Massachussetts scored an S-minus. The many “F” states were concentrated in the Southeast, such as Mississippi. The nation as a whole got a big “U” (unsatisfactory), with passing marks in only three key areas:

the percentage of women age 40 and older across the country getting mammograms regularly, the percentage of women visiting the dentist annually and the percentage of women age 50 and older who receive screenings for colorectal cancer.

Other aspects of women’s good-health practices have gone downhill in recent years, such as fewer women getting regular pap smears. Moreover, the gendered health issues explored in the report card are aggravated by racial and socioeconomic divides. For example, while about 17 percent of white women lack health insurance coverage, the uninsurance rate is far higher among women of color–well over thirty percent for both Latina and Native American women. Black women can still expect to die several years sooner than their white peers.

While such problems stem from a complex array of causes, the bottom line is that both federal and state governments have largely failed to provide the resources and structural reforms in the health-care system needed to address chronic health needs.

On health-care legislation, states have generally met just two basic benchmarks: Medicaid coverage of breast and cervical cancer and offering food stamp and nutrition education programs to help struggling households stay healthy. But states have barely approached the NWLC’s more visionary benchmarks, such as protecting women’s access to reproductive health clinics.

The report does, however, give a cautious thumbs-up to the Obama administration’s health insurance reforms, which could address many of the NWLC’s key concerns–including Medicaid expansion, anti-discrimination regulations in private health plans and ensuring a baseline of “essential benefits” that cover preventive, maternity and long-term care for women. Even those minimal reforms are already under attack from the new Republican leadership in the House.

The NWLC points out that this report card caps a decade of spotty performance: modest progress on a few health indicators (like falling death rates from some cancers) overshadowed by stagnation and even decline on many others (the rise of obesity and high blood pressure). Moving into 2011, policymakers have some serious work to do to make up for years of failing women.

(Photo via Flickr user amboo who? under Creative Commons 3.0)

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