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Many US Women Face Obstacles to Proper Health Care - 2003-08-20

Governments realize the importance of providing proper health care to women, but economic and other roadblocks often stand in the way. The barriers to a woman's access to that care exist in rich and poor nations alike. In her second report, Correspondent Laurie Kassman looks at what is being done in the United States, where many impoverished women cannot afford proper health care.

Overall health conditions may be better in the industrialized world than in developing countries, but healthcare advocates acknowledge women are still at risk of being left out of the system.

Many of the barriers to healthcare in developing countries also exist in rich nations.

Susan Rosen is executive director of the Valley Women's Health Access Program in Derby, Connecticut, in the northeastern United States. She says the cost of care is a significant barrier for many women who do not have the income or insurance to cover it. "Also transportation is a big barrier. We live in the valley, where transport is not that accessible. There are some buses, but if you do not own your own car, it is difficult to get around," she says. "Childcare is another problem. What do you do with the child, if you need to go to the doctor?"

Ms. Rosen's center has overcome some of the hurdles by providing bus and childcare services, and extending clinic hours to provide low-cost care and consultations.

Wanda Jones says community public health centers located where the need is greatest are on the front line of health care for the most vulnerable. Ms. Jones is deputy assistant secretary for Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. "That often is the only health provider for low-income people, for under- or un-insured people," she says. "For many immigrant and migrant populations, the community health center is often the first and only stop in their health care."

The government currently helps fund more than 800 public community health centers.

Ms. Jones says the government has a responsibility to invest in the health of its citizens but, she adds, so does the private sector. "There is so much the government can do. But there is a tremendous responsibility of society as a whole, and industry, and all the other sectors," she says.

But the recent economic downturn affects public and private sectors alike. A study released in July by the National Women's Law Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation notes the recession has forced many U.S. states to cut funding for public health programs.

Kaiser Family Foundation Vice President Alina Salganicoff says women will be hit the hardest. The study shows they usually earn less than men and work in jobs that do not provide insurance. But they tend to live longer and rely on public health services more. "Unfortunately, when the resources are the tightest is when the need for public programs is the greatest," she says.

Susan Rosen has seen the consequences of the economic downturn. Her center is located in an area of Connecticut where manufacturing plants have closed up or cut staff, leaving many families with few or no resources. "The health coordination center is really a place within the community where women know there's a place to go for access to health care," she says.

U.S. health official Wanda Jones says educating women is another key to providing successful healthcare, because it helps women understand what is available and how to use those resources. The repercussions, she says, go far beyond the family unit. "Women are by and large primarily responsible for the health and well-being of their families. And, any investment, beginning in childhood in the literacy of girls and educating girls pays huge dividends in reducing infant and child mortality and improving the health and health status of the family. And again, it feeds right back into the overall health and security of a nation," she says.

The growing diversity of the U.S. population has added a new challenge for health care providers. Health workers increasingly need to accommodate different languages, cultural and health beliefs. Susan Rosen in Connecticut, for one, has broken the language barrier by hiring a bilingual staff to help service Derby's growing Latino community.

This is part of VOA's series of reports on World Health