On Sunday, I celebrated my first Mother's Day as a grandmother, so the celebration of National Women's Health Week this week has new meaning for me. It means that thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA, the 2012 health reform law), my daughter, who gave birth via Caesarian section, cannot be denied insurance in the future based on a pre-existing condition. It also means my newborn granddaughter's care must be provided as part of any new insurance policy. It reminds me that health care is personal and impacts on each and everyone of us rich or poor, male or female, Catholic or Jewish.
So, this is a time to be grateful and to celebrate our mothers, our daughters, our granddaughters and their ability, thanks to the new law, to be able to access health care almost universally. For the first time in our history, a federal law has been enacted that prohibits sex discrimination in private insurance, in federal health programs, and in the health insurance exchanges that will operate under the law beginning in 2014. Prior to passage of the ACA, women paid up to 150 percent more for health insurance than men. Now such discrimination is illegal.
Beginning in 2012, as long as the law is upheld by the Supreme Court, insurance companies can no longer exclude anyone based on pre-existing conditions -- which means that women who have had Caesarean sections like my daughter cannot be denied insurance (it's important to note that nearly one-third of all childbirths occur with this procedure). Nor can insurance be denied to women who have been the victims of domestic violence or received medical treatment after sexual assault.
Under the law, women will be able to get the care they uniquely need. Prior to the ACA, only 13 percent of health plans in the individual marketplace included maternity care, according to the National Women's Law Center. Now, all new health plans must offer essential benefits for women such as maternity care, care for newborns, and prescription drug benefits.
Ninety-eight percent of women use contraception at some point in their lives, most on a regular basis. Women spend most of their middle years trying to avoid pregnancy, yet contraceptive services have not been a routine part of many health insurance plans. Under the ACA, insurance plans will be required to include such care, and most importantly, without any out-of-pocket costs. That does not mean, as some critics charge, that it is "free" -- just that the cost will be included in the insurance premium without added costs for women. All employers, except for a narrow group of religious organizations, must include such care, regardless of their own views of contraception.
Thanks to the ACA, key preventive services for women are also covered now without co-pays, deductibles, or any other out-of-pocket expenses. These services include mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, and prenatal tests. In 2011, more than 20 million women between 18 and 64 took advantage of this new provision of the health care law. Medicare beneficiaries are also covered.
Many of the new law's benefits, while important for all individuals, are particularly valuable to women because their incomes are lower than men's. By 2014, up to 10.3 million low-income women will be newly covered by the expansion of Medicaid. Under the ACA, the federal government will help those who lack access to affordable employer-provided health insurance get coverage. Young adult women are already able to stay on their parents' policies until they are 26 years old. The Affordable Care Act bars insurance companies from imposing lifetime caps on individual health care costs, as well as phasing out annual limits by 2014.
It is not just women who benefit. The nation's public health problems -- infant mortality, obesity, smoking, drug abuse and more -- also need our urgent attention. Cost containment and health care quality improvements are critical to the long-term viability of our national health care system, to say nothing of our national health care budget. Because of the ACA, we now have a secure platform on which to build new solutions for our health care problems. Whether you already have the insurance you need or not, we cannot continue to live in a nation where so many have been left out -- financially or morally.
If the Supreme Court attacks the underpinnings of the new health care platform, we will be sent back to a time when too many women, children and families went uninsured or under-insured. Women cannot be left once again to be victims of a predatory private insurance market. Along with the organization I lead, the National Council of Jewish Women, we must redouble our efforts to keep that from happening. I plan to speak out even more passionately this year in order to guarantee that my new granddaughter lives out in her life in a country she can be healthy in and proud of -- a country that provides quality, affordable health care to her and to everyone else.
Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women, a grassroots organization inspired by Jewish values that strives to improve the quality of life for women, children, and families and to safeguard individual rights and freedoms.
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