A health care reform proponent.NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–With the nation’s interest in health care reform growing in intensity, even influencing election outcomes, the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., warned on Jan. 15 that the Senate health care reform bill would not end gender rating, the practice by which insurers charge women higher premiums than men for the same coverage. In contrast, the House version would ban the practice.

Larger employers with predominantly female work forces–such as child care providers, visiting nurse associations and even some smaller school districts–would continue to be charged higher premiums "simply because of the demographics of their work force," Judy Waxman, vice president for Health and Reproductive Rights at the National Women’s Law Center, said in a Jan. 15 message to their members.

The Senate bill eliminates gender rating for companies with fewer than 100 employees.

Spurred by this further disappointment with the Senate’s Reid-Nelson health reform bill–which joins the House version in restricting abortion coverage–the new president of the National Organization for Women is threatening to join those opposing passage of health care legislation in its current form.

"It’s beyond outrageous that our friends in the leadership in the House and Senate and the White House did not call me to tell me this," said Terry O’Neill, who was elected in June to succeed the term-limited Kim Gandy as president of NOW. "As it is, if the Reid-Nelson compromise passes, after a period of years, women in this country will have no private or public coverage for abortion care. And then they’re going to sneak in the continuation of gender rating and they expect us to sit back and not call for the bill to be completely killed? They’ve got another thing coming."

O’Neill said the nonpartisan group NOW would support pro-choice candidates regardless of party affiliation, from independent candidates to GOP members willing to go "back to the way it was before it was taken over by extremists."

Coakley Race Crucial

The disaffection of pro-choice advocates from Democrats and the political compromises they have accepted on health reform coincides with the Tuesday loss of pro-choice Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in the special senate race for the seat vacated by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. Coakley’s victory was considered crucial for retaining the solid 60 votes necessary for health reform passage.

Scott Brown, the victor in the Massachusetts race, campaigned on his opposition to the health care bill. The Republican Majority for Choice did not endorse Brown because the group wasn’t able to scrutinize his full voting record on reproductive issues.

Kellie Ferguson, executive director of the Washington-based group, said Brown has expressed support for Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling preserving abortion as part of a woman’s right to privacy. Ferguson added that Brown, as a state senator, also voted for emergency contraception for rape victims. However, he voted for parental consent for abortions too and possibly other restrictions. Because of his record, Ferguson said she believes Brown "will be someone they can work with."

The industry-friendly concession on preserving insurers’ right to gender bias is part of the Senate’s Reid-Nelson compromise, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

That duo has left Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, calling for changes to the Senate filibuster rule that she said makes it possible for one senator–such as Nebraska’s Nelson or now Massachusetts’ Brown–to block legislation and appointments.

"How can we be in this position where we are constantly fighting to prevent further restrictions?" Smeal said.

Insurance companies claim that higher overall average costs for women’s health care justify the practice but women’s advocates call it discriminatory.

Women pay up to 48 percent more for health insurance than men, Smeal said.

Bills Restrict Abortion Access

The House and Senate health care reform bills, now undergoing reconciliation in Washington, both restrict access to abortion.

The House’s Stupak-Pitts amendment bans all coverage of abortion in insurance plans to be offered in a newly created insurance exchange.

The Senate’s Reid-Nelson compromise forbids any federal subsidy or funding to pay for abortion coverage.

Under the Senate version, women in theory could buy coverage as long as they pay for it separately with their own money. But individual states could "opt-out" and pass legislation prohibiting their insurance exchange from having plans that cover abortion at all.

Groups ranging from the YWCA to the American Medical Student Association warn that both bills create a clear incentive for health insurance plans to stop covering abortion. Currently, up to 85 percent of health insurance plans do cover these procedures.

Amid the turmoil over health care reform, Ellen Malcolm, president of the pro-choice EMILY’s List, announced earlier this month that she is stepping down.

Stephanie Schriock, 36, a key political architect of the election of Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, will replace Malcolm, 62, on Feb. 1.

Malcolm, who founded EMILY’s List in 1985 to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, and Schriock, who also headed the campaign of Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, could not be reached for comment on how the health care reform debate would affect the strategy of one of the largest political action committees in the nation.

Matt Burgess, an Emily’s List spokesperson, told Women’s eNews that Malcolm will continue serving the organization as chairwoman of the board.

Malcolm, who has served for 25 years, announced the search for a new president in July 2009 on the EMILY’s List Web site.

Three Male Lawmakers to Blame

In a Dec. 20, 2009, e-mail–forwarded to Women’s eNews by Burgess–Malcolm blamed "the fiasco around abortion coverage in health care reform" on the general male-domination of Congress and three male lawmakers in particular: Stupak, Nelson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, who heads the smallest minority party since 1979 but nevertheless has managed to keep his 40-member caucus unified in its opposition to health care reform.

"Our elected women are the ones who fought long and hard to defeat the Stupak-Nelson forces in Congress," Malcolm wrote.

Seventeen percent of lawmakers in Congress are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers.

During interviews with Women’s eNews, pro-choice leaders leveled no criticism at Democratic female lawmakers, although Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, admitted in published reports that she had given in to abortion opponents in her party to save the health care reform bill.

NOW’s O’Neill expressed doubt about the ability of the two-party system to protect women.

"The Republicans are implacably opposed to women achieving our rights and the other party knows we have no place to go," she said.

The Feminist Majority’s Smeal said she wants closer scrutiny of the Catholic bishops for ignoring restrictions on political activism by a tax-exempt religious institution.

Catholic Bishops Exert Pressure

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it would fight any health care reform bill that did not contain restrictions on abortion. The bishops told priests across the country to talk about the legislation at all masses, to include the anti-choice information in more than 19,000 parish bulletins and to mobilize parishioners to contact Congress.

The bishops also repeatedly visited the offices of members of Congress, Smeal said. She urged Congress members "to get the same backbone" the Washington, D.C., City Council showed when it refused to bow to pressure from the bishops over the legalization of gay marriage.

"We are supposed to have a separation of church and state," Smeal said. "Religion should not dictate. There are the mullahs in Iran and the bishops here."

"The Catholic community led by their bishops must make their voice heard in the public square," Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Women’s eNews in response to Smeal’s criticism. "Anything short of that would be to abdicate their responsibility as citizens and Catholics. The bishops defend the weak and defenseless. Someone has to. All U.S. citizens ought to. Health care reform is about saving lives, not taking them."

Walsh did not respond to questions about the possible violation of the bishop conference’s tax-exempt status.

Susan Elan covered politics at daily newspapers in the New York metropolitan area for more than a decade. She has also worked as a reporter for an English-language radio station in Paris.

For more information:

EMILY’s List

Feminist Majority Foundation

NARAL Pro-Choice America

National Organization for Women