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Category: Politics, Health

Women Healthcare Executives—Where Are They in the Health Reform Debate?

| January 19, 2010

The author, an activist for women’s health and safety, looks in vain for leadership from women in corporate healthcare boardrooms as negotiations on reform reach the final stage.

Here we are at a pivotal moment in United States healthcare policy, with women’s healthcare rights a big part of the story. So where are the voices of the women healthcare executives at this important time? Where has their leadership and advocacy been during this watershed moment in our history?

Women Health Executive Networks (WHENs) is an organized community of managers and administrators—from New York to California—yet we have heard nothing in the media about their collective voice or individual action, either on local or national levels. Women leaders in the healthcare industry certainly have a responsibility to speak out on public policy. WHENs is one of the affiliate groups of the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), an organization that asks its members, 41 percent of them female, to fulfill their responsibility by “taking a leadership role in serving the community.” Responsible healthcare executives, says ACHE, should “actively advocate for the community with the public, policymakers and other key stakeholders to define community healthcare priorities so that healthcare resources can be used equitably and effectively.”

Yet the voices of women executives in the debate have been few and far between. One woman who has spoken out more than once is Karen M. Ignagni, the chief executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans. She has been quoted in The New York Times adding a sharply critical commentary about the recently passed Senate Healthcare Reform Bill: “We are not sure it will be workable. It could disrupt existing coverage for families, seniors and small businesses, particularly between now and when the legislation is fully implemented in 2014.” And Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals, has been quoted speaking out about the issue of federal funds and abortion, taking a somewhat more moderate position than the Catholic Bishops.

In September 2009, when first lady Michelle Obama spoke about the health care debate being a women’s issue, I was certain this was an opening for women across the healthcare spectrum to make their voices heard. It seemed logical that women healthcare executives would speak out on behalf of young women, who use more healthcare services than men, and the pregnant women and mothers with children that already bear more of the healthcare cost burdens.  Where is the discussion within the industry about gender equality and access to affordable healthcare? Why has there been no visible advocacy from the organized women leaders in corporate healthcare? Scouring the news reports, my research documents a deafening silence from the women’s healthcare executive community. In an effort to be thorough, I emailed the presidents of all six state networks listed on the WHENs website but received no response. I had hoped to discuss my call to action and hear about any individual or collection action I may have missed.

The 2006 gender study report from the ACHE, developed in collaboration with researchers from the Department of Health Policy and Management of the University of Kansas, compares career attainment statistics of men and women healthcare executives. It is apparent that they have work to do to achieve gender equity within their own ranks. Women achieved CEO status at 63 percent the rate of men and women executives earned 18 percent less than their male counterparts, a percentage that has changed little since 1990. These gender disparities should only fuel women healthcare executives to be more vocal and proactive participants in the larger healthcare debate.

It is more important now than ever for women leadership to speak out and work towards more equitable solutions in our healthcare system. We need to hear from those women who sit in positions of power and influence in the corporate healthcare board rooms. The time is now.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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