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Soaring health care costs and eroding benefits are seriously impeding Americans’ ability to get needed health care, with women particularly affected, a recent Commonwealth Fund study found.

Women are more likely to use health care services throughout their lives, but on average, are paid less than men, making access to the health care they need even more difficult. A 2008 Kaiser Family Foundation study reported 67 percent of uninsured women went without needed care because of cost, as did nearly 20 percent of women with insurance.

Shawn from Washington state told the AFL-CIO’s 2009 Health Care for America Survey that she was downsized out of a job a decade ago.

I have no health insurance and just a widow’s pension. I’ve had no health care for 10 years, just pay cash when I can and hope that nothing serious happens.

In Florida, when Lorna became pregnant, she discovered her insurer classified prenatal care and child birth as surgery and was “subjected to the limits that applied to ’surgery,’ even though no surgery was required in my quite healthy and uneventful pregnancy and delivery.”

Defining uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery as “surgery” allowed the insurer to impose limits on reimbursement that would not have applied to other kinds of care and required me to pay a significantly greater percentage of the costs.

Health care reform legislation making its way through Congress is designed to address affordability, quality, access and insurance company abuses, among other issues.

A recent National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO) briefing on Capitol Hill outlined several areas of concern for women that health care reform must address.

Amy Allina, a program director of the National Women’s Health Network, says women tell researchers and pollsters that affordability, availability and quality are their top priorities.

It is critical to bring the women’s vision and voices in change and to ensure the women’s stake in debates over health care reform. We need to cover everybody, women say. Make it easier to manage, make it fair—don’t charge the women more than men, don’t let insurance companies refuse people on pre-existing conditions, and ensure better preventative care.

Allina also points out that women’s voices and concerns on health care reform are an especially valuable asset for everyone.

Health care is important for women, but there is an overlap on why it is important for others, because women tend to be the health “experts” in their families and communities coordinating care for others.

Marilyn Keefe, director of reproductive programs at the National Organization for Women (NOW) Foundation, stresses the importance of ensuring that comprehensive reproductive health services are protected in the legislation.

We need an independent commission with strong consumer representation to determine benefits for women on the evidence-based science and standards.

Nearly 30 percent of minority women have no access to health care, says Eleanor Hinton Hoytt, president of Black Women’s Health Imperative. She says health care reform must eliminate disparities involving women of color, and she called for a greater emphasis on community approaches to health care delivery.

NCWO chairwoman Susan Scanlan says it’s vital that advocates for women and families continue to speak their concerns about health care reform legislation.

We have more women in health care and giving professions who should set a baseline on how the health care must be delivered. But as 80 percent of Congress are men—they set a policy.