The Washington Informer

Opinion / Editorial
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 22, 2009 06:04 AM

October marks the annual observance of two health concerns that affect women disproportionately, Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Consider the following shocking statistics: Each year in this country, nearly two million women of all races, incomes, education levels and religions experience domestic violence -- one in four women in the United States will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime.

Perhaps more shocking is the fact that many insurance companies re-victimize survivors of violence through discriminatory practices. In eight states, these victims are told by their insurance companies that their experiences with domestic violence amount to a pre-existing medical condition, and often are refused coverage. This deplorable practice of re-victimizing victims of domestic violence is another of the many reasons why it is imperative for Congress to pass comprehensive health care reform.

Not only is domestic violence considered by some insurance companies as a pre-existing medical condition but so too are conditions such as pregnancy and caesarian section, and qualify as a basis to deny coverage to women. If these discriminatory practices are left unchecked, the insurance industry would effectively exclude coverage for millions of women. This is a shameful practice and it must be stopped.

The current health care system is failing women in other ways as well. In observing Breast Cancer Awareness Month we acknowledge alarming disparities in breast cancer mortality in this country, due in large part to problems with access to care for minority women. According to the Office of Minority Health, African American women are 34 percent more likely to die from breast cancer and 10 percent less likely to be diagnosed than White women. This disparity can be attributed significantly to a lack of access to screening, diagnosis, and treatment that leads to more expensive care in the long run, but tragically far too often death. A report released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies estimates that between 2003 and 2006, the combined costs of health inequalities and premature death in the United States totaled $1.24 trillion. Further, the same study found that eliminating health disparities for minorities would have reduced direct medical care expenditures by $229.4 billion for those same years.

For African American women and other women of color, this is all the more reason to pursue health care reform to expand access to primary care, eliminate co-pays and high deductibles for preventive care and cover the cost of screenings such as mammograms. Eliminating disparities and discriminatory insurance practices impacting minorities and women is cost effective and is the right thing to do.

In order to accomplish that goal, while also covering 46 million uninsured Americans, including more than 700,000 here in Maryland, we need a combination of insurance reforms to bring accountability for insurance companies and a robust public health insurance option to provide competition and lower costs for all of us. A public health insurance option would provide middle class, working families with a full spectrum of choice and benefits, including preventive and long-term care. In order for the public option to compete on a level playing field and bring down costs, it must be linked to a medical doctor and provider network built upon the existing Medicare network so that doctors and patients, not insurers, are in charge of their medical care.

Some claim that a public option would be a fiscally irresponsible, inefficient bureaucracy. In the 1960s, these same arguments were leveled against Medicare and Medicaid – two programs that now stand as cornerstones of our health care system. On the contrary, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reports that a public option would save $110 billion dollars over the next decade, as opposed to only $25 billion saved in reform bills without a public option. Whether it’s Medicare, Medicaid or Veteran’s care, these systems provide quality care to millions of Americans, so too will a public health insurance option for health care.

As we recognize the impact of domestic violence and breast cancer on women’s lives and health, let’s remember that domestic violence is a crime, not a pre-existing medical condition and breast cancer is a disease that can be treated if diagnosed early. Congress is closer than ever to passing comprehensive health care reform that can be signed into law by President Barack Obama. It’s time to get it done for women and all Americans.

Congresswoman Donna F. Edwards (D) represents Maryland’s 4th District.