Could a Smart Retort on Maternity Care Help Build Support for Comprehensive Health Care Reform?

September 28, 2009

That’s what reform advocates are hoping, as a video from Friday’s Senate Finance Committee spread over the weekend. The short clip, embedded below, shows a great practical and philosophical divide over women’s health care.

During discussion on the health care bill proposed by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the committee debated one of Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) amendments, which would prohibit the government from defining specific health benefits that insurers must offer.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) argued that under a new system, insurance companies should be required to cover basic maternity care. According to Kaiser Family Foundation, only 18 states mandate maternity coverage, and that number falls to 14 when applied to individual insurance markets.

Women who seek insurance on these open markets face other barriers, too; they can be disqualified for having had a previous c-section — or even for having been pregnant. Yes, pregnancy is a pre-existing condition. You can read more frustrating facts about the open insurance market — like how it’s still legal in nine states and the District of Columbia to deny a woman coverage because she’s been the victim of domestic violence — in this report by the National Women’s Law Center (covered here in October 2008).

But Kyl doesn’t plan on getting pregnant, so really, what’s the big whoop?

“Well, first of all, I don’t need maternity care,” Kyl said. “So requiring that to be in my insurance policy is something that I don’t need and will make the policy more expensive.”

Stabenow, smiling, interrupted: “I think your mom probably did.”

Kyl brushed off the remark, noting that was more than 60 years ago. Follow-up on insurers covering Viagra and prostate cancer did not ensue.

The Kyl-Stabenow exchange made the rounds in news stories and blog postings over the weekend. Almost 3,000 comments have been left on just this one Huffington Post brief. This version of the video has been viewed more than 122,000 times as of Monday morning.

Kyl should be thanked — it’s not every day a senator appears so stunningly tone-deaf on an issue that affects the entire population.

There are 4.3 million births per year in the United States, according to Childbirth Connection, which recently released a report (pdf) outlining how health care reform should address maternity care. Kyl’s staff should have held up flashcards noting that 85 percent of all women give birth, and 23 percent of hospital discharges are childbearing women or newborns. A woman’s health before and between pregnancies can have a major impact on pregnancy outcomes — and costs.

But again: Why should Kyl care?

For the record, Kyl’s amendment was defeated 14-9.

All this went down exactly one week after First Lady Michelle Obama made a personal appeal for health care, emphasizing the benefits to women and families. Speaking at an event sponsored by the White House Council on Women and Girls, Obama said “it’s still shocking” that women face discrimination when it comes to insurance premiums and coverage.

“I think it’s clear that health insurance reform and what it means for our families is very much a women’s issue,” said Obama (read her full remarks here).

Perhaps after watching Kyl, more Americans will be outraged that women can be denied coverage because of pregnancy. And maybe — just maybe — Stabenow’s six words, likely the first “your mother” joke  ever told during a debate on health care reform, will persuade voters that maternity coverage is worth it for everyone.

Update: As noted in the comments below, the NWLC is asking people to send in baby photos to show Kyl why maternity coverage is basic health care for all.

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