Women's Preventive Health Amendment Added to Senate Reform Bill

It's meant to quell the mammogram controversy, but ire is brewing over possible abortion coverage ban.

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Women's health issues continue to be at the forefront of the political debate as the health reform bill gets bandied about in the Senate. On Thursday, the Senate approved the addition of a women's preventive care amendment "to ensure patients receive doctor recommendations for preventive health services, including mammograms and cervical cancer screening, without interference from government or insurance company bureaucrats."

And just in case anyone wondered whether this amendment was linked to the bitterly controversial mammography screening guidelines proposed last month by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the amendment states specifically that the secretary of health and human services shall not use any recommendation made by the USPSTF "to deny coverage of an item or service" under any kind of federal healthcare program. I'm assuming that this also applies to task force recommendations made for men—like a 2008 decision to recommend against screening men over 75 with the prostate-specific antigen blood test—or for other screening tests used by both sexes. But that's not clear from this amendment, which specifically applies to women. (I also don't remember the same level of outcry from men's activists when those PSA recommendations were issued last year.)

Perhaps, as I wrote previously in this blog, women are simply better at vocalizing their healthcare needs and launch more effective protests when they feel they're being shortchanged. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who proposed the amendment, said at a press conference that in addition to ensuring that a 40-year-old woman could get a mammogram if she wanted one, the measure will include screenings for diabetes, heart disease, domestic violence, postpartum depression, and other kinds of cancers. She added that the "unique needs" of women weren't being adequately addressed in the Senate healthcare reform bill.

While that's all well and good, the amendment ignores the elephant in the room: abortion coverage. Reproductive rights activists, left steaming by the last-minute addition of the Stupak-Pitts amendment banning abortion coverage to the House bill, held a mass protest this week on Capitol Hill in an attempt to keep such an amendment out of the Senate bill. Planned Parenthood, one of the organizers of the new (and quite wordy) Coalition to Pass Health Reform and Stop Stupak, says the group has gathered more than 110,000 signatures on an online petition that will be sent to President Obama.

Despite those efforts, I wouldn't be surprised if the Senate bill winds up looking the same as the House's when it comes to banning abortion coverage. Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska, said Thursday that he won't vote to advance the Senate bill unless it includes additional restrictions on abortion coverage in federal health plans and in plans that participate on the insurance exchange. The language, still being drafted, is expected to be similar to the Stupak amendment. And I can't help but wonder whether the women's preventive health amendment was meant to serve as a consolation prize for those women who will ultimately wind up feeling cheated if abortion services aren't covered in their plans.