NWHN in Action – May/June 2016

Taken from the May/June 2016 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

Also in the May/June issue you will read about some of our Raising Women’s Voices (RWV) Regional Coordinators, and our most exciting RWV news: the launch of Cover our Families: A Community Organizing & Advocacy Toolkit! But that’s not the only area where we’ve been hard at work. In the spring, RWV released a research brief and hosted a webinar for advocates and policymakers about Medicaid Expansion waiver provisions’ impact on women’s health.

More than 30 states have expanded Medicaid for citizens with incomes up to 138 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, and most have done so as envisioned by the Affordable Care Act. Six states, however, have expanded coverage through a waiver process that allows them to impose a host of additional barriers to care. These include charging premiums and co-pays above current thresholds, limiting when coverage begins, denying coverage to individuals who miss payments, eliminating transportation support, and more. And several states that originally expanded Medicaid without these onerous barriers – e.g. Arizona, Kentucky, Ohio – are trying to reverse this progress after changes in their political leadership. Our brief details why women are particularly vulnerable to policymakers’ decisions during the waiver process. The report is available here.

We also launched the Spanish-language version of our popular health literacy guide, My Health, My Voice. Cecilia Sáenz Becerra, the NWHN’s Regional Field Manager for RWV, took the lead in ensuring that Mi Salud, Mi Voz was as precise, accessible, and culturally competent as possible for Spanish-speaking women, using the principles of language justice in the translation and approach to the overall guide. The guide is available at MyHealthMyVoice.com.

Challenging Dangerous Drugs & Devices

As we described in the March issue, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced its decision on Essure, the controversial non-surgical, non-hormonal sterilization device. The FDA incorporated most, but not all, of the NWHN’s recommendations. It will now require the manufacturer to add a warning label describing adverse events experienced by the Essure’s users, provide a patient information checklist of risks, and conduct a follow-up study to determine the device’s long-term effects. In the NWHN’s comments to the FDA, we continued to push it to require the manufacturer to fund an independent registry to track Essure patients.

On the same day as the Essure announcement, NWHN Program Director Sarah Christopherson was at the FDA reiterating the need to include women, people of color, and the elderly in clinical trials for drugs and devices. There have been a number of highly-publicized failures in this area; in 2013, for example, the FDA was forced to cut its approved dose for women taking the sleeping aid Ambien in half, after belatedly learning that the drug affected men and women differently. So, you might think the FDA’s learned its lesson by now. Instead, officials suggested that advocates needed to “rethink our approach,” and move away from categories like gender and race. We testified that, “Unless industry is prepared to do genetic testing on all study participants, unless physicians can do so on patients, sex, race, ethnicity, and age are now – and will be for years to come – the best proxies we have for determining how widely-used drugs and medical devices are likely to affect certain individuals.” We’ll keep you posted on the discussion.

Securing Sexual & Reproductive Health and Autonomy

When we wrote in January that 2016 was going to be a big year for women’s health at the Supreme Court, we had no idea that Justice Antonin Scalia would pass away the next month. His death altered the balance of power on the Court and set up a high-stakes showdown in Washington over filling his seat. While the Senate wrestles with whether or not to do its job in holding hearings on Obama’s nominee to fill the seat, we didn’t miss a beat doing ours.

On March 2, the Court heard oral arguments on Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt – arguably the most consequential case for abortion rights in a generation. Of course, the NWHN was there. At stake in this case is whether state legislators can use the claim of “protecting women” as a Trojan Horse to shut down abortion clinics. On March 23, the Court heard oral arguments in Zubik v. Burwell to determine once and for all (we hope!) whether employers can use their religious beliefs to deny women contraception coverage. Again, the NWHN was there. The Court’s power is immense, but so is the power of women to show the justices that comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion, is critical to our health, our children’s lives, and our economic stability. That’s why the NHWN and other women’s health advocates made our physical voices heard before the Court. We also raised our digital voices: live-Tweeting, creating shareable graphics for our members to post on social media, and distributing information about the cases. We also urged our members to contact their senators with one simple message about the Court vacancy: do your job!

Sarah Christopherson, MA, is the Legislative Director for the social justice campaign, Americans for Tax Fairness, and the NWHN’s former Policy Advocacy Director. Her 10 years working for Congress and her deep knowledge of health policy and consumer protection make her the NWHN’s issue area expert on federal health reform implementation and defense, drug and device safety and efficacy, and sexual and reproductive health.

Read more from Sarah Christopherson.