Hear us Now! A Powerful Force for Health Care Reform
By Amy Allina
A veteran forced to leave school and declare bankruptcy to deal with her health care needs and expenses…A mother who moved her family across the country so she could care for her aging father and advocate for him after poor quality care during a hospitalization threatened to lead to long-term institutionalization…A Latina immigrant who sought health care through a community health program and then won awards for her work to promote community health with women facing problems similar to those she had confronted.
Those stories and voices are just a few of those shared by women at Hear Us Now!, the conference convened on April 17th and 18th by Raising Women’s Voices for the Health Care We Need (RWV). The conference was a huge success -- a gathering of over 270 people from 23 states who came together on the Boston campus of Simmons College to build the knowledge, relationships and skills that will empower them to return home and organize for high-quality, affordable health care for women in their communities.
Women for Quality, Affordable Health Care
The Hear Us Now! conference was a central focus of the RWV initiative’s first year, led by the National Women’s Health Network and our partners MergerWatch and the Avery Institute for Social Change. We conceived the conference to create a space where women from diverse constituencies could come together and engage in health policy discussions about problems and solutions to shape health care reform efforts. The women’s voices brought forward at Hear Us Now! made women’s need and demand for high-quality and affordable health care audible and visible in a new way. More tangibly grounded in women’s experiences than a policy analysis, more comprehensive than a speak-out giving voice to women’s concerns, more forward-thinking than a demonstration or rally to demand change – the conference was designed to connect all of those elements and mobilize a network of trained and outspoken women working to make health care reform a reality.
Hear Us Now! gave participants a chance to learn from each other about the problems women face in the U.S. health care arena today, develop a deeper understanding of the health care solutions being tested around the country, and lay the groundwork to mobilize a diverse national network of activists committed to health care reform that meets the needs of women, our families, and our communities.
Making Connections Among Diverse Women
Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders opened the conference with a keynote address on “The Crisis in Our Health Care System,” which discussed why we don’t have quality, affordable health care for all. Later, Miriam Yeung, Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum, delivered a luncheon keynote on “A Vision of Health Care for All”, that powerfully described the diversity of women and women’s health needs that must be encompassed by any viable universal health care system. The two-day program that followed was organized around plenary panels that focused on those who are left out of the current health care system, what women need from health care, and what women are doing to take action toward our goal of health care reform.
Interspersed with these plenaries, conference participants heard a series of “Voices of the Unheard” – stories from individual women who have been failed by the U.S. health care system because their lives and health care needs do not match up to available services or systems. Participants also gathered in smaller groups for a series of workshop sessions covering such topics as:
- Dependent Health Insurance Status as a Women’s Issue.
- Why Isn’t Health Care Considered a Human Right?
- Women of Faith Mobilize for Health Care Reform.
- Making Sure Reproductive Health is Included in Health Care Reform in Your State.
In addition to this program, RWV conveners put forward some tools and ideas that can be used in organizing women to act on health care reform. All of the conference attendees received the RWV organizing kit, a CD containing a selection of resources to take back to their own communities and use to help raise women’s voices for health reform. The conveners also presented a draft document, entitled A Woman’s Vision of Quality, Affordable Health Care for All, that outlines principles to guide the creation of a health care reform plan that will better meet the needs of women, their families, and their communities. (To be posted at http://raisingwomensvoices.net.) Participants were invited to offer suggestions to hone the Vision and asked to endorse the final document so that it can be disseminated with strong support from organizations representing a wide diversity of women and communities. (If you are a part of an organization that might consider endorsing the Vision and principles, you can review the revised document.; click on the link there to endorse it.)
In conference evaluations and post-event feedback, many who attended Hear Us Now! commented that it offered an inspiring learning environment with a wide range of perspectives that were grounded in varied experiences in health care. A reproductive health advocate from Oregon wrote, “I was so impressed by the talent in the room and how you all managed to maximize on our exposure to the breadth of resource women out there working in one way or another on the issue of women’s health.” Another point raised repeatedly in evaluations was that the conference galvanized a high-level of energy and planted seeds for important organizing for the future. A Washington, DC-based advocate noted that it was very different from other conferences she’d attended, writing that the space and energy “created was so different — it was a room filled with authenticity, meaning, celebration, energy, and passion.” And an organizer from New York State said, “A new multicultural women's movement was born!”
Working Together as a Powerful Force for Health Care Reform
While the NWHN and RWV are delighted with the positive reactions and view the conference as a real and important success, we are not resting on those laurels. “No matter how fabulous the conference experience was,” NWHN Executive Director Cindy Pearson explains, “if we don’t follow that up by supporting the women who came in working together and with their own communities as a powerful force for health care reform, we will have lost a tremendous opportunity.”
To determine how best to build on the foundation laid by Hear Us Now!, RWV surveyed conference participants for their ideas about how to keep the momentum going and what would be most helpful to them. More than 20 percent of conference participants responded to the survey, and several recommendations came through very clearly:
- An overwhelming majority asked for follow-up strategy sessions resulting in work plans, and almost half requested quarterly conference calls to maintain regular communication.
- The top priorities identified for short-term work (e.g., work occurring within the existing health insurance system) were making health insurance premiums, deductibles and co-pays affordable for women and families and prohibiting insurance companies from denying health coverage based on pre-existing conditions (such as pregnancy, cancer and diabetes), closely followed by prohibiting health insurance companies from using “gender rating” to charge women more for health insurance.
- There was strong support for focusing longer-term work (e.g., changing the health system) on eliminating disparities in health care; establishing health care as a human right; and making sure health reform includes comprehensive reproductive health care.
The National Women’s Health Network is currently working with our RWV partners and the growing network of allies in this project to put these ideas into action. To stay informed about what this incredible network of advocates is doing to continue to build support for quality, affordable health care that meets women’s needs, check the Raising Women’s Voices website regularly; you can also send an email to us at email@example.com, if you’d like to receive updates.
Amy Allina is the NWHN's Program & Policy Director