|(Crosspost from Impolite Company)
UPDATE: My original post did not include Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region, who has also been a vital partner in this effort. My apologies.
The Healthy Women, Healthy Voices project is a unique attempt to listen to stories from women about the problems they have had accessing health care and what their priorities are when it comes to health care services that they need. But not only is it designed to listen to women, it's also designed to magnify their voices in speaking out about these concerns, both by collecting the stories and making them available to decision-makers and the public, but also by empowering women to speak out on their own directly to the politicians and leaders who make public health policy. Though a lot of the work on this project has been spearheaded by NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, reproductive health is only one facet of the health concerns the coalition focuses on. This project is driven by the concerns and stories of the women who have been sharing their experiences through the Healthy Women, Healthy Families Survey--if you haven't done so yet, please click on that link and add your voice to the discussion.
The coalition has been working on this project all year and at last night's forum, Katie Mahoney released some of their initial results from Central Texas respondents (around 150 so far). The surveys are designed to rank health care concerns and Mahoney talked about the top six most urgent health care needs seen in survey responses:
1. Safe and affordable child care--though at first glimpse this wouldn't seem to be a health care issue, it's actually foundational to a health family. If a woman can't get her children into a safe child care program, usually she's the one who isn't able to work and this can have devastating results for a single parent family or a family that relies on two incomes to survive.
2. Health care for those who have no insurance or are underinsured--if you have to go to an emergency room for your basic health care needs, you won't get the sort of consistent and preventive care necessary for a healthy family. As Rep. Howard said later in the forum, "Health care is a right and not a privilege."
3. Family planning services for teens and women--solid, comprehensive family planning services are absolutely necessary to make sure that women and families are able to take care of the children they have without suddenly having to worry about splitting financial and other resources to raise more children than they can afford.
4. Medically accurate sex education--whether the subject is STD's, failure rate of birth control methods, misinformation related to sex, pregnancy and the reproductive system, teens and adults need to make their decisions based on accurate information. Texas has the highest rate of teenage births and pregnancies in the nation--abstinence-only sex education won't change that.
5. Health care access and preventive care for the disabled--people with physical and mental challenges face hurdles that the rest of us don't have to overcome when seeking health care or insurance coverage. Often their disabilites make even getting onto the examination table in a doctor's office a difficult and dangerous process.
6. Breast and cervical cancer screening--These forms of cancer get a lot of media attention but it's unconscionable that whether or not you get screened depends upon how much money you make, especially when survivial rate is so intimately tied to early detection.
(Remember, these are only preliminary findings and the coalition will continue to accept surveys from respondents through next summer. This is the easiest way imaginable to get your voice heard when it comes to the health care priorities you think are important. If you don't see your concerns on that top six list, do something about it and take the survey.)
The next speaker was Lisa Scheps from the Transgender Education Network of Texas and she focused on some of the problems faced by transgendered individuals and some stories highlighting these issues. Every transgendered person, whether transitioning from male to female or female to male, faces woman's health concerns. Makes sense, doesn't it? Yet on top of the mistrust that transsexuals often face, they also struggle to get basic health care. Lisa told the story of Robert Eads, a female to male transsexual who died of uterine cancer because he wasn't able to get health care. Robert's story is featured in a 90-minute documentary entitled Southern Comfort. Lisa also shared her own inability to get health insurance simply because she is transgendered. She isn't even able to get into the state's high risk pool as a provider of last resort.
Priscilla Hale of allgo followed Ms. Scheps and she presented health care and reproductive issues that affect her constituency, queer persons of color. For instance, she asked us to think about a queer woman who is the designated guardian for her sister's children and the questions she faces and the hurdles she must overcome if something happens to her sister and she tries to take charge of the children. And what about the law in Arkansas that forbids homosexuals from adopting children? Could such legislation come to Texas? But she also told a couple of stories from the surveys, one of a woman who miscarried and who, despite having a good job and insurance, faced economic uncertainty because of over $2000 in health care bills on top of the emotional trauma of the miscarriage. The other story can be boiled down to a question asked by a woman who was getting WIC assistance to feed her children and was unable to get high quality food because of program restrictions: why do I have to feed my children junk?
Rep. Donna Howard's presentation initially focused on some of the problems women face in getting their voices heard in the Capitol when it comes to health care. The most glaring issue is the make-up of our representative bodies. Despite gaining seats in the last election, only 25% of the State House of Representatives are women and only three of our State Senators are women. It takes both empathy and imagination for representatives to look beyond their own demographics and understand the concerns faced by someone who isn't like them--unfortunately, a lot of our representatives are lacking in both. Gender is one of those barriers to understanding that is often difficult to overcome and so until there is gender-parity in our houses of government, women will be facing an uphill battle to get their concerns understood and addressed.
What many of us fail to recognize is that not only are women often left out of the policy-making process in terms of health care, but women also carry a heavier burden when it comes to health care expenses and responsibility. For instance, just the wide array of health care needs women face in terms of pregnancy and reproductive health add considerably to their health care burden. Likewise, when there is an illness in the family, it is often the woman who takes time out from work to care for the children or sick parents. Whether it's making sure that women have their health care needs met or passing robust family leave allowances, it is essential that policy makers take women's concerns into account when they make decisions.
Rep. Howard also focused on the best way to approach your representatives and make sure they are listening when you talk to them.
* Talk to your legislators between sessions rather than trying to get their attention in the middle of Session when they're trying to cram two years' worth of work into 180 days
* Don't just throw facts at them--tell them stories
* Keep it concise and easy to follow--a single sheet your legislator can take with them and refer to is a good idea
* The more personal the better, whether in terms of the story you are telling or the type of contact you make with your representative. For instance:
o Personal, face-to-face contact is the best way to make an impression
o Phone calls are the next best
o Letters come next
o Emails, especially the form emails on the official websites are the least effective
Rep. Howard closed with two important points to keep in mind: never hesitate to make your voice heard and health care is a right and not a privilege.
Remember, if you haven't taken the survey yet now is the time to get your voice heard on women's health care issues in Texas.
Organizations that participated in the forum:
*Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region--dedicated to helping people make informed, private decisions in matters of sexuality, reproduction and parenthood.
* Transgender Education Network of Texas--an advocacy group dedicated to furthering the cause of gender diverse people in Central Texas. We will accomplish this through advocacy and education in both public and private forums. Through our efforts we will strive to halt discrimination through social, legal, legislative, and corporate education.
* allgo--allgo envisions a just and equitable society that celebrates and nurtures vibrant people of color queer cultures.
* NARAL Pro-Choice Texas--is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization and the political arm of the pro-choice movement in Texas. Our mission is to recruit, develop, and sustain a constituency that uses the political process to promote public health policies that guarantee every woman access to the full range of reproductive healthcare. This includes responsible sexuality education, short and long term contraceptive methods, adequate pre-and post-natal care, and legal abortion.
* Whole Woman's Health--offers care for women, by women. We provide unparalleled patient-centered care where the focus is on the whole woman-her body, heart, and mind.
* Austin Women's Health Center--Austin Women's Health Center (AWHC) offers comprehensive health care with a focus on providing abortion services in a private and supportive environment. Our capabilities go well beyond those of an abortion clinic. We are dedicated to treating women as individuals; recognizing the importance of education, patient participation and follow-up care.
* Health Care for All Texas--We are a grassroots coalition that believes health care is a human right. Every person in the state of Texas deserves access to high quality health care at an affordable cost.
* ADAPT of Texas--ADAPT of Texas is a grassroots disability rights group. With the cry "We Will Ride!" ADAPT of Texas started in 1985 with the fight for lifts on buses. In 2006 we had our state 21st Anniversary, and in 2008 our national 25th Anniversary. ADAPT's advocacy lead to Capital Metro becoming the first fully accessible mainline transit system in Texas. Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, in 1990 ADAPT has turned our main focus to community attendant services.
* Texas Advocacy Project--Texas Advocacy Project provides free legal services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault throughout the state of Texas.
* Brookside Women's Health Center--At Brookside Women's Medical Center, the emphasis is on the client, through health education. We feel that you are the most important person involved in your health care and encourage you to ask any questions you may have about your care. The more you understand, the better you will be able to take care of yourself. Your informed participation decisions regarding your health care is of the utmost importance.
* Jane's Due Process--Jane's Due Process is a nonprofit organization ensuring legal representation for pregnant minors in Texas. Our goal is to have every pregnant teen know that she has the right to seek legal help, to be treated with respect and sensitivity by those who work in the legal system, and to participate in legal proceedings where everyone is interested in following the law.
* SafePlace--SafePlace exists to end sexual and domestic violence through safety, healing, prevention and social change.
*National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health--The mission of NLIRH is to ensure the fundamental human right to reproductive health and justice for Latinas, their families and their communities through public education, community mobilization and policy advocacy.