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Women Work to Save Preventive Care Gains

Tammy20 Baldwin

A fund designed under the Affordable Care Act as an investment in prevention, thus saving future health expenses and enriching peoples lives, is under non-stop attack in Congress.

When is a landmark preventive care fund not quite one? When an escape route enabling unrelated Congressional whims makes its future uncertain. Make that Republicans’ whims, which have repeatedly thrown the $13 billion program into the legislative hopper like a ball on a roulette wheel.

Women’s health advocates inside and outside of Congress warn that a permanent solution is needed for the Prevention and Public Health Fund, created as part of the Affordable Care Act. The problem is that Congress retains the authority to redirect money to pay for non-public health programs or eliminate the fund altogether.

Dems earlier had opened a door by allowing $4 billion taken from the Fund to offset the payroll tax cut. But the Republican plan would end it entirely.

The fund helps run programs to prevent tobacco use, obesity, heart disease, stroke, poor nutrition and cancer, according to HHS. It’s also making it possible for local health departments to better respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Women would be hurt on a number of fronts, according to Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). “Hundreds of thousands of women could lose access to vital cancer screenings. Prevention Fund resources are expected to help more than 300,000 women be screened for breast cancer in 2013 and more than 280,000 be screened for cervical cancer.”

Baldwin added, “Programs that help to prevent congenital heart defects, prevent fetal alcohol syndrome, and promote early identification and intervention efforts for children with developmental delays and disabilities could be eliminated. Tens of thousands children could lose access to immunizations.”

Mary Pittman, head of the California-based Public Health Institute, called on Democrats to protect the prevention fund in the future from political maneuvering. “There could be legislation introduced to protect it from being accessed for unrelated programs. Going forward we need to get assurances that the prevention won’t be used as a bank account for other programs.”

This will happen repeatedly until a hands-off policy is adopted, said Baldwin, longtime healthcare advocate in the House and current candidate for Senate in Russ Feingold’s old district. “Congress should find a bipartisan solution to keep from hurting women’s health or increasing the deficit,” she said.

A Republican move in the Senate failed last week that would have gutted the entire fund to pay for a lower student loan interest rate; on July 1 it’s scheduled to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, costing the average student $1,000 per year and the government millions in underwriting costs. The House passed an identical student-loan bill in late April also financed by sacrificing the fund. And last week, there was a GOP attachment to a renewal of the Export-Import Bank fund at the preventive care fund’s expense. It didn’t pass.

The attacks on the fund resurfaced in the Senate this week in a Republican amendment to an FDA bill. Following a Republican filibuster, Senate Democrats have yet to reschedule a floor vote of their bill that would pay for freezing student loan rates through closing a payroll tax loophole.

The political acrobatics are nothing new to activists who helped craft the healthcare reform legislation. Said Lois Uttley, head of Raising Women’s Voices and Merger Watch, “Affordable Care Act opponents have tried to pit much-needed infrastructure fixes and popular programs against the Prevention Fund as a means of undermining the ACA. They did so more broadly, from Medicare payments for doctors, to tax relief for small businesses. Now they’re using student loan subsidies to attack the fund.”

Another candidate for Congress, New Mexico Bernalillo County Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham, said gender is an issue here. “Democrats have to be vigilant against these Republican attacks on women. Frankly, we need more women in Congress. In their attempt to play politics with these important issues, Republicans are ignoring the rights that women have fought to secure.”

The right to preventive healthcare is also an issue and this won’t go away by itself, according to the chair of Senate Health Committee, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). His office hinted investment in prevention was the real red meat for the GOP all along. “Their filibuster of the student loan bill is only part of the story,” he said. Regarding student loan rates, he said, “Republicans are shedding crocodile tears. But this is a case of ‘watch what they do, not what they say.’”

Uttley of Raising Women’s Voices is demanding even stronger future protection. “We need more prevention investment, not less. Currently, close to half of Americans have at least one chronic disease. Together, these conditions count for 75 percent of all healthcare spending and are estimated to cost employers $73 billion a year.”

Uttley said, “Supporters of the Affordable Care Act must forcefully defend the Prevention Fund from the misinformation campaigns being carried out by health reform opponents. We cannot be silent!”

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