May is National Women’s Health Month, a designation encouraging women to make their own health a top priority through obtaining regular medical checkups and preventive screenings.
This particular May, it is important to call attention to the disproportionate impact the health care crisis is having on women, particularly women of childbearing age.
The Department of Health and Human Services recently released a new report stating that women, especially those of reproductive age, are more vulnerable to high health care costs because they require more regular contact with health care providers. These visits include standard preventive care measures such as a yearly Pap test, mammograms, and obstetric and gynecological care.
While the study sheds much needed light on the impact of the nation’s health care crisis on women, its findings are not surprising. Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a women’s health clinic run by Planned Parenthood which provides affordable, accessible, high-quality preventive reproductive health care. It was a busy clinic because a lot of lower income women need care but cannot afford it. Nationally, each year Planned Parenthood provides 950,000 cervical cancer screenings and breast exams to more than 850,000 women. In Virginia alone, these clinics see over 28,500 patients a year.
But given their limited budgets, clinics like these cannot meet the great demand in Virginia, let alone in all 50 states. In the Commonwealth, the most recent figures show that 846,100 women are in need of contraceptive services and supplies. Of these, 371,640 women need publicly supported contraceptive services because they have incomes 250 percent below the federal poverty level or are teenagers.
These figures make clear that it is critical that health care reform requires coverage of comprehensive reproductive health services. With the economic downturn, health centers like Planned Parenthood have seen a significant increase in utilization, just as their funding streams, both public and private, have become more precarious. Across the country, they are seeing an increase in patients–women who have lost their jobs and health insurance, or who no longer have money to pay for medical care. These women are literally choosing between a month of birth control and bus fare.
Health centers, such as Planned Parenthood, are a critical part of an important network of women’s health care providers, serving as an entry point into the health care system for millions of women. In fact, more than six in ten clients consider family planning centers their main source of health care. They are oftentimes, a woman’s first-ever interaction with a health care physician.
This May, we need to redouble the message that preventive health care, for men and women, is necessary to live a healthy, happy life. As Congress moves forward with a proposal to increase health insurance, we must keep in mind that maximizing coverage alone is not enough. Ensuring access to a strong network of health care providers is equally important, and a fundamental part of the effort to reform our nation’s struggling health care infrastructure.