King v. Burwell Could Turn Back the Clock for Women’s Health

June 23, 2015

In the coming days the Supreme Court will decide King v. Burwell, a case on which the health coverage of more than 6 million individuals—and in some ways the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—hinges. As we anticipate that ruling, and as conservative lawmakers propose potential solutions to the crisis that will ensue should they “win,” we should pause and remember that the ACA has profoundly improved the quality of women’s health coverage, expanded women’s access to care, and increased women’s economic security. As I describe in a policy note released today by the Roosevelt Institute, if policymakers are serious about the health and financial wellbeing of women and families, they should expand and strengthen the ACA, not reverse or repeal it.

The ACA expanded coverage to 16.5 million people and elevated the floor of coverage for women. In the pre-ACA system, women were routinely charged more than men, had to pay out of pocket for preventive services like pap smears and breast exams, and many couldn’t afford maternity coverage while they were pregnant. But since President Obama signed the ACA into law, 8.7 million women have gained maternity coverage; 48.5 million women with private insurance can access preventive services with no cost-sharing; and as many as 65 million women are no longer charged higher premiums based on pre-existing conditions. In 2013, the number of women who filled their birth control prescriptions without co-pays grew from 1.3 million to 5.1 million, and the share of women who had access to birth control with no out-of-pocket costs grew from 14 percent to 56 percent .

For millions of women, the ACA has begun to ease the financial burdens of health coverage and care. Before the ACA, women were far more likely than men to have to forgo care because of cost concerns, and for all women—but especially those without coverage—cost was a major barrier to care. Many women had difficulties paying their medical bills (52 percent of uninsured women and 44 percent of low-income women, compared to 28 percent of women overall). This should be no surprise, given that it’s more likely for women—particularly women of color—to live in poverty. Today more than two-thirds of low-wage workers are women—half of them women of color—and many work long hours with no health benefits. Wage inequality causes Black and Latina women to lose approximately $19,000 and $23,279 a year, respectively.

A loss of subsidies would be especially harmful to women of color. In states that are using the federal exchange, women of color represent nearly half of uninsured women eligible for tax credits. Those subsidies are the only path to insurance for 1.1 million Black women, approximately 2 million Latinas, nearly a quarter-million Asian women, and more than 100,000 Native American women. Many of those women live in one of three states: Florida, Georgia, or Texas.

Comprehensive, affordable coverage—and by extension, care—is as much a matter of health as it is economic security. When women have good coverage and access to care, they are able to prevent illnesses that take them out of work, threaten their employment, and force them to lose a paycheck. They are better able to make decisions about the timing and size of their families. They have healthier babies and children, fewer out-of-pocket medical costs, and more money for food, childcare, education, housing, transportation, and savings. Health coverage won’t singlehandedly solve the myriad challenges facing low-income women and families; indeed, the United States’ soaring inequality demands sweeping social and economic reforms. But without the very basic ability to care for their bodies, visit a doctor, plan the timing and size of their families, and make independent reproductive health decisions, women will never be able to take full advantage of other economic opportunities.

The political vitriol of the past five years has blurred our collective memory of just how badly we needed health reform before we got it. Opponents of the ACA argue that we cannot afford for the law to prevail. But the truth is we can’t afford for it not to. In most other countries families are not driven into poverty because they seek needed care, and they don’t avoid seeking care out of fear that doing so will drive them into bankruptcy. The United States is unfortunately exceptional in this regard. For too long the right to health has been unfulfilled in the United States, and the ACA has begun to change that for millions. Neither the Supreme Court nor conservative lawmakers should turn back the clock now.