Just before the Senate Finance Committee wrapped up debate over its Sen. Max Baucus-designed health care bill, its members debated one of Sen. Jon Kyl's amendments, which would have cut language defining which benefits employers are required to cover.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., argued that insurers must be required to cover basic maternity care. (In several states there are no such requirements.)
"I don't need maternity care," said Kyl, R-Ariz. "So requiring that on my insurance policy is something that I don't need and will make the policy more expensive."
Stabenow interrupted: "I think your mom probably did."
The amendment was defeated, 9 to 14.
That anecdote explains a lot about what's been wrong with the health care debate in Washington these past several months, UW-Madison law Professor Alta Charo told the annual fall luncheon of Planned Parenthood last week in a stirring speech in Madison. Too many people working on health care reform don't understand insurance - that it should be designed to spread the risk among us all, not to exclude certain classes of people so that policies cost less. Kyl obviously doesn't understand it.
"If you don't want to cover women's maternity care, then don't ask us to cover your prostate cancer treatments or, better yet, don't ask us to cover the costs of your Viagra prescription," the internationally recognized bioethicist said.
Charo, who was on President Barack Obama's transition team and was recently named a senior adviser to the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is alarmed at how women are treated as "special interests" in the health care debate when not only do they outnumber men in the health care system, but by age 85 women outnumber men 2-1. Health care ought to be built around women, she argued, not treat them as a special interest.
Many of them, after all, served as caregivers for their husbands and fathers while they were alive. When they're in need of care, the system needs to take care of them too.
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It was a good point that drew applause from the 175 people, mostly women, at the event.
The reason they are considered a special interest is because health care becomes a debate on moralism and politics rather than on science - something well known to Planned Parenthood, which strives to get young people informed about their sexual health. The ideologues use misinformation to get their way.
Charo added that it's why reproductive health in the U.S. is rotten, why we have 65 million people with incurable sexually transmitted diseases, why we have high infant mortality rates, why we have so many unintended pregnancies.
"We've got to stop treating health care as a Sunday school scolding," Charo said.
For example, we keep pumping millions of taxpayer dollars into abstinence-only sex education when study after study has shown that it doesn't work. We lead kids to believe that they never have to have sex and then when they do, they know nothing about birth control. And, of course, the burden typically falls on women and the poor.
She warned the crowd that the right to life lobby may well gets its way on abortion in the health care debate. Several amendments have already been proposed that would ban any health insurer from covering an abortion if the firm gets any federal subsidy. That would cover all insurance companies because their low-income policyholders will be subsidized with federal funds.
In order to get health reform in the end, she worries, Congress may give in to the abortion ban unless women and others speak clearly and loudly to their senators and representatives.
Guess what is also in the Senate Finance Committee's health reform bill: $50 million more for abstinence-only sex education.