When Senator Jon Kyl (R, AZ) declared “I don’t need maternity care” as support for his amendment which would prohibit the government from setting a floor for certain insurance coverage he may have perfectly and succinctly summed up the Republican approach to the health insurance crisis: I’ve got mine, too bad for you. Or, to elaborate a bit more, Kyl’s argument was essentially because I’m a man and will not get pregnant I don’t need maternity care and requiring maternity care to be a basic benefit in a policy will drive up costs. So, to keep health care costs down, insurer’s should not be required to, as a matter of course, cover basic prenatal and maternity care. By not paying for pregnancies we can save money.
Thankfully Senator Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) reminded Kyl that, at one point, he did need maternity care when she interrupted “I think your mom probably did.” While the response might sound a bit flip, it cuts right to the quick: women do not get pregnant all on their own, nor can they count on a man to cover the costs of prenatal care and delivery. So even a man, at one point in his life, was the beneficiary of maternity care.
The exchange came in the context of an amendment proposed by Kyl to the version of the health care bill currently being debated in the Senate Finance Committee. Kyl’s amendment struck language that would define which benefits employers are required to cover, benefits such as basic maternity care. Most indiviudal health insurance plans don’t cover maternity care, and those that do charge a steep price for such coverage. According the the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 14 states have a requirement of such coverage, and the number of plans without maternity coverage rises dramatically year after year.
One insurer, Anthem Blue Cross, explained their decision not to cover maternity costs this way: pregnancy is optional. The point of insurance is to insure against catastrophic care costs. Diabetes and heart disease are not choices, but having a child is a matter of choice. If a woman wants her pregnancy covered by insurance, she can purchase a “rider”– a supplemental policy just for that purpose.
Putting aside the fact that Kyl and his donors routinely invoke the language of “choice” when referring to pregnancy while working to systematically undo women’s reproductive freedoms, refusing to cover maternity care as a matter of course is not only a moral failing by the health insurance industry, it is a discriminatory practice that must end. Unfortunately, it is just one discriminatory practice employed by the health insurance industry when it comes to covering women. When women buy insurance on the private market, they are not protected by federal laws that prohibit insurers for charging them more, simply because they are women. The practice, known as gender rating, means that women almost always pay higher premiums than men for the same exact coverage- at a rate of as much as 45% more in some areas.
Thankfully Kyl’s amendment was defeated, but the fight is far from over. Congress is entering a crucial stage in the health insurance reform debate and there will no doubt be additional efforts to eradicate all efforts at reform. We don’t often think of the health insurance debate as a matter of civil rights, but we should. Not only do the practices of these companies have a discriminatory intent, they profit obscenely from discriminatory practices. It’s time for that to end.
photo courtesy of daniel.baker via Flickr