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Congress, President Ready to Legislate More Women’s Health Disparity

It's 2009.  We've elected President Barack Obama.  We've elected a Democratic majority in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.  Those bastions of social policy are now in place to protect basic human rights.  Good things should be in the offing - at least we should make progress in the direction of more equity for women and their families and perhaps most especially for women of color.  Right? 

And we've declared that healthcare is a basic human right.  Women surely fall into the category deserving of equal access to basic human rights.  So far, so good.  Surely we're setting ourselves on a course to expand more healthcare equity to women.  Surely it must be so.

But, alas, it's not to be.  If the 111th Congress and the 44th President pass the mess of a healthcare reform plan they've been batting around of late, women will lose ground in access to healthcare and in the forced purchase of private insurance products that discriminate against them.  Not exactly what we hoped for from this lot of potentially progressive leaders.

It's not the Democrats' fault alone by any means.  The Republicans are equally at fault - or perhaps more egregiously so - in seeing healthcare as a commodity to be bought by those who can afford it and begged for or died for by those who cannot.   And so long as women earn less than men, the ability to have equal access to healthcare will be damaged for themselves and for any children they may be raising.

Let's look at how we're doing on economic indicators of income in these United States:

As reported in an article on the Huffington Post last week, "Income inequality in the United States is at an all-time high, surpassing even levels seen during the Great Depression, according to a recently updated paper by University of California, Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. The paper, which covers data through 2007, points to a staggering, unprecedented disparity in American incomes. On his blog, Nobel prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called the numbers ‘truly amazing.'

"Though income inequality has been growing for some time, the paper paints a stark, disturbing portrait of wealth distribution in America.  Saez calculates that in 2007 the top .01 percent of American earners took home 6 percent of total U.S. wages, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000."

So, the wealthiest folks are getting wealthier, and their grip on the wealth of our nation is tightening.  But what about women, specifically?  Aren't we doing better and don't we almost have income equity as the 21st century begins to unfold?  Not so much.

In 2007, women's median annual paychecks reflected only 78 cents for every $1.00 earned by men. Specifically for women of color, the gap is even wider:  In comparison to men's dollar, African American women earn only 69 cents and Latinas just 59 cents.  (National Committee on Pay Equity)

It has taken 44 years to move this measure by 19 cents.  At this rate, our daughters and granddaughters will still be fighting the income equity battle 50 years from now.


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Women's median pay was less than men's in each and every one of the 20 industries and 25 occupation groups surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2007.  Each and every industry and occupation... big words.  Big problems.

So, discrimination against women in equal pay for equal work continues and more seriously for women of color.  And now we sit on the verge of having even more disparity in healthcare as Congress and the President ready themselves to pass legislation that will force women - who earn less than men - to purchase private, for-profit health insurance policies that they can afford on their lower earnings that may or may not provide the care they need.

The healthcare reform effort - or as the President now calls it, "the health insurance reform" effort - sets in place a forced participation in deepening discrimination against women and women of color as the basic human right of healthcare is encased in the purchase of a private insurance product that allows varying degrees of access to care. 

This Congress and this President had and have a responsibility to the women of this nation to see to it that disparities in the delivery of healthcare are eliminated not expanded.  First, they need to decide a single, high quality standard of care for every person - male, female, young, old, rich, poor, of color or white - and then they need to find out how to make that happen in the most cost-efficient way.

Instead, they have blundered through trying so hard not to ruffle the feathers of the wealthy and the powerful and the more heavily male interests at the helm of the private insurance, for-profit medical-industrial complex and their more heavily male dominated elected officials. 

Women need to know that simply because the plan Congress is looking at will require the purchase of private insurance, it will discriminate against women who earn more than the level designated for subsidies but less than their male counterparts who can afford top notch coverage.  Mid-and lower income level women will be able to afford less.  Disparity written into healthcare law, circa 2009.  Not good at all.

In contrast, a single-payer program - publicly funded but privately delivered - would eliminate these gender disparities and the legal entanglements that will result from healthcare reform that allows, on its face, women to be more heavily the purchasers of lesser quality insurance products.

As our daughters and granddaughters continue the struggle for income equity in the future, I am relatively confident that they'll be able pursue legal relief - maybe even reparations - for the damage done to them by passage of healthcare reform in 2009 that slighted women and girls. 

I expected more of this President and this Congress.  And I still do.  Do not deepen the disparities for women in healthcare for women in this nation.  We deserve better.  We wouldn't want the men in our lives to have inferior healthcare, and we don't want it either.

Donna Smith

Donna Smith
Donna Smith Donna Smith is the national chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign for Progressive Democrats of America.  She was featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, SiCKO.

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