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The America Women and Families Want – and Urgently Need

This election, voters were determined to make their voices heard – and they did. They voted for a future where the basic values of fairness, opportunity and compassion are a reality for all of us. They said ‘yes’ to a health care system that works for everyone, ‘yes’ to reproductive health care for women and ‘yes’ to family friendly workplaces that are essential to the health and well-being of the nation’s families.

This is the America the nation wants and urgently needs. But the fight for these rights didn’t end on Election Night. The last four years taught us all that we can’t just depend on our elected officials to protect our rights and help us gain access to benefits we need. The gridlock in Washington won’t change unless we continue to make the case for forward-thinking, common-sense policies.

Let’s start by moving forward with implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – the greatest advance for women’s health in a generation. The ACA is moving us closer to the day when essential women’s health services are consistently covered by health insurance, prevention is a priority, and care is coordinated so family caregivers don’t have to shoulder unmanageable burdens. With millions of women and families counting on the promise of access to quality health care, we can’t afford any more delays or roadblocks.

It’s time to turn to the task of making sure the elements of health reform so critical for women are implemented fully and soon. These include provisions that ensure women don’t have to pay more for insurance simply because of gender, protect women from being denied health coverage if we get sick or have pre-existing conditions, and make coverage more affordable through subsidies for women who lack employer-sponsored health insurance.

Yet, within days of the election, opponents of health reform continued their attacks on this law, vowing to overturn key provisions. The ACA is the law of the land and it has been validated by the U.S. Supreme Court and, now, again, by the voters. We need to keep reminding our elected officials that efforts to repeal, defund or otherwise undermine the law should be swiftly and decisively rebuffed.

So, too, should efforts to turn back the clock on women’s access to reproductive health care. Voters had a very clear choice between candidates who want to take away our access to these essential services that help us plan our families, and candidates who did not. And on that, too, voters were entirely clear. They want the war on women to end. That’s because they recognize that, when women make their own health care choices, women and babies are healthier, women and couples are able to have children they can care for, and women are able to participate more fully in employment and civic life.

Every woman deserves access to quality reproductive health care that includes contraception, abortion care, and medically accurate information about her reproductive health.

Yet, 40 years after the Supreme Court recognized women’s right to privacy including the right to choose abortion, in many states women are forced to travel long distances, undergo inaccurate counseling and unnecessary invasive procedures, and deal with needless and potentially dangerous waiting periods in order to get care. Other women don’t have a choice simply because they can’t afford the care they need. That’s why it is so important that the administration and Congress protect and promote access to safe abortion care, family planning and contraception by opposing efforts to undermine the ACA and repealing discriminatory and harmful restrictions like the Nelson and Hyde Amendments.

Improved access to quality health care is just one element of improving women’s lives. In a difficult economy, we need to fight just as hard to protect economic security for women and their families. That’s why we have to insist on a balanced approach to addressing our national debt – an approach that doesn’t simply inflict pain on working parents and their families, and doesn’t take a cleaver to such essential benefits as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. How we reduce the debt is as important – or more important – than how much.

Enacting family friendly workplace policies like paid sick days and paid family and medical leave are another key part of our challenge. Nearly 40 million private sector workers in the United States cannot earn a single paid sick day to recover from common, short-term illnesses. Millions more don’t have paid sick days they can use to care for a sick child or family member. Without paid sick days, women are forced to make impossible choices when illness strikes: stay home, lose pay and risk their jobs; or go to work sick, risk their own health and spread disease to their coworkers and communities. When families are struggling and jobs are scarce, no worker should be faced with losing a job or sacrificing their ability to put food on their family’s table because they come down with the flu or need to care for a feverish child. Congress must prioritize passage of the Healthy Families Act and establish a national paid sick days standard.

Only 1 in 10 Americans has access to paid family leave and less than half have access to short-term disability insurance. Is it any wonder only half of first-time mothers take any paid leave after the birth of a child? Paid family and medical leave allows workers and their families to meet their health needs without jeopardizing their economic security.

It has been nearly 20 years since President Bill Clinton made the Family and Medical Leave Act the very first piece of legislation he signed into law. During those two decades, workers have used the laws tens of millions of times to take leave to recover from illness, care for a new baby or care for an ailing family member. But many more workers simply cannot afford to take the unpaid leave the law provides. It’s time to take the next step, and put a paid family leave insurance program in place.

This election made clear that our nation does not want to go back to the days when almost no workplaces were family friendly, women could not access safe, legal abortion, women paid more than men for the same health coverage, and even those of us with health insurance had to hope and pray that we didn’t lose our homes and our life savings when a family member got sick.

Instead, we are ready for progress. Health reform, women’s access to the full range of reproductive health care services, family friendly workplaces, and a durable, reliable safety net are not partisan ideas, nor are they radical. They are the American way.

Every four years we get to speak with clarity about what America needs to thrive. At the National Partnership, we will fight to make sure we continue to go forward to a better America. It’s that simple. We hope you will join us. Learn more at www.NationalPartnership.org.

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Debra Ness
Debra Ness is an American advocate for social justice and the current president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. Ness’s career has centered on health and public policy, with a focus on the rights of women in the workplace and women, patients and consumers in the health care arena.
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