In the first six months of 2011, Pennsylvania lawmakers spent 30 percent of their days at the Capitol working to pass two bills that would severely restrict access to safe, legal abortion. At the same time, many members of the Pennsylvania State Senate and House of Representatives have declined to support a bill that would provide pregnant women with the insurance coverage that they need to ensure a healthy birth.

While seemingly paradoxical, the Pennsylvania legislature’s stance on these bills has been a testament to the sexism that pervades the policy-making process and presents an all-around assault on women’s health in the state.

Pennsylvania consistently fails to meet the needs of women in this state, particularly women who find themselves pregnant. The state legislature approved a budget for this year that cut funds for the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, especially women and children.

The loss of adultBasic this year, a subsidized insurance program for working Pennsylvanians, aggravates the situation for pregnant women even more. Over 11,000 women of child-bearing age were covered on adultBasic with over 206,007 women on the waiting list. This means that over 200,000 women in Pennsylvania who wanted to purchase insurance this year could not.

What further complicates the problem is that Pennsylvania allows insurance companies to discriminate against women and their reproductive needs. Insurance is crucial to having healthy mothers and babies by ensuring that prenatal care is both affordable and accessible. Believe it or not, individual and small group health insurance plans are not required to cover maternity in their minimum benefits package. An insurance company can deny eligibility to a pregnant woman based on pre-existing condition exclusions. A woman with a previous C-section can also be denied coverage for a subsequent pregnancy under a new plan. Thus, the insured — as well as the uninsured and underinsured — find additional obstacles to getting the care they need.

Pennsylvania does not have a state law requiring individual or small group employer health plans to provide maternity benefits. The insurance law on the books neglects to mandate maternity coverage in all state insurance products. It also does not stipulate a standard of care, meaning insurance companies can cherry pick the services they offer women, and everything else is left up to the patient to cover.

State Sen. Larry Farnese (D) has introduced legislation that would eliminate pre-existing condition clauses and mandate small group and individual insurance plans cover maternity. SB 1063, or the Insuring Motherhood Bill, is an important attempt to reverse sexist logic in the law books and in insurance schemes.

But why should Penn students care? With the very real possibility that abortion services may become severely limited in this state, this bill will become especially important for young women in the state. Gaps in care often fall upon young adults who are more prone to be unemployed, lose or switch jobs or fall through the cracks when it comes to being insured. Young women in this category who find themselves pregnant and without insurance coverage face serious costs and health risks.

The Pennsylvania state legislature has the opportunity this session to finally meet the reproductive needs of women in this state and address some of the sexual imbalances in access and costs to health care by enacting legislation that eliminates pregnancy as a pre-existing condition and mandates pregnancy coverage in all insurance plans. Seventeen states, including New Jersey and Massachusetts, have already passed similar legislation. A woman’s body is not a pre-existing condition.

Sascha Murillo, a College senior, is a policy intern at Maternity Care Coalition. Her email address is smurillo@momobile.org.

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