Feeling the Aftershocks of the Health Care Earthquakes

Taken from the July/August 2012 issue of The Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

Thankfully, none of them were severe and no one I knew was hurt, but those earthquakes left me with very vivid memories of the experience. Those memories started coming back as I sat down to write this column, and I realized that I wanted to write about health care earthquakes.

So, what do I mean by a health care earthquake?

I mean the kind of event that shakes people up and weakens old structures. The release of the first results from the Women’s Health Initiative 10 years ago, in July 2002, was certainly a health care earthquake. Women and their clinicians were startled by the news that hormones didn’t prevent heart disease and, in fact, carried health risks that had not previously been clear. The old structure that saw menopause as a deficiency disease was suddenly much weaker.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) was another health care earthquake. State policymakers were shaken up by the new responsibility to set up affordable insurance exchanges for their residents. And, old structures, like treating being female as a preexisting condition, started to crumble.

The nice thing about health care earthquakes is that — unlike an actual earthquake — when it comes to health care, shaking things up actually leads to better health. As Amy Allina explains in “Challenging Unproven Medicine and Saving Lives,” tens of thousands of women are enjoying better health than they would have without the Women’s Health Initiative earthquake. And, although the biggest impact of the health reform earthquake has not been felt yet, millions of women have already gained access to services that they couldn’t afford before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

But, what about those aftershocks?

When they come after a real earthquake, aftershocks can stop you in your tracks. At first, it’s hard to know if it’s just an aftershock or is another earthquake – maybe one that’s even worse than the first. But eventually, aftershocks subside and people go on about their business, including building up new structures to replace the ones that didn’t survive the shaking.

That’s what happens after health care earthquakes, too. The aftershocks of the Women’s Health Initiative are still happening. We feel them when we see a medical society with ties to pharma claim that the Women’s Health Initiative got it wrong; or when we see Internet ads for “customized” hormone therapy, claiming this will make us feel sexier, happier, and more energetic.

As this issue of the newsletter goes to print, we’re bracing ourselves for health reform aftershock – the Supreme Court’s ruling on the cases challenging the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality. Whatever the Court decides, we’re sure to be shaken up, at least for a while.

But, here’s one thing I learned growing up in the land of earthquakes: unlike the changes made by the earthquake itself, aftershocks don’t last forever. That’s our attitude toward the health care earthquakes in which the Network has been so deeply involved. Breast cancer rates aren’t going to go back up and, regardless of what the Court decides, we are not going back to the time when insurance companies could deny coverage to people. Bring on the health care earthquakes!

Cindy Pearson was the NWHN’s Executive Director from 1996 to 2021. One of the nation's leading advocates for women's health, Cindy often testified before Congress,  NIH and the FDA and was frequently featured in the news as a consumer expert on women’s health issues. When she retired, Cindy received a Congressional Resolution in honor of her outstanding contributions to the health of women and girls.

Read more from Cindy Pearson.