Women are cheering this week’s recommendation by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to eliminate costly insurance co-pays for birth control. It’s a signal that there is a growing public recognition that preventive care is more than just the provision of services at the doctor’s office. For millions of Latinas, birth control, by definition, is prevention. But, while the media has focused extensively on the birth control recommendations, the full set of recommendations detailed by federal health officials paints an even brighter picture for our community: Latinas made major gains not only in controlling our fertility, but equally importantly in keeping ourselves and our children healthy.
The IOM is made up of a powerful group of scientists and public health leaders that has enormous sway in the government’s approach to health care. It’s no surprise then that health professionals looking at the country’s essential needs recognized what many have not: removing societal barriers to health care, such as those faced by many Latinas, are critical public health priorities.
Virtually every one of the IOM recommendations will greatly benefit Latina women. Whether Latinas are seeking to plan and space their pregnancies, keep their pregnancies healthy, keep their infants healthy, or get basic preventive healthcare, these expanded benefits are welcome news.
For example, the incidence of cervical cancer for Latina women in the United States is almost twice as high as non-Latina white women. Latina women have the 2nd highest mortality rate from cervical cancer, after black women. Yet cervical cancer is very preventable. Eighty-five percent of women who die from cervical cancer never had a pap smear. These recommendations will mean that many more Latinas will get access to cervical cancer screening, and, hopefully, many more will survive.
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Access to medical care is key to healthy pregnancies. The new recommendation to provide gestational diabetes screening and support is of particular importance to Latinas. Women who develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy have a 40 to 60 percent chance of developing diabetes within the next five to ten years. Some research findings have pointed to a much higher rate of gestational diabetes among Latinas, and in some states such as Utah and North Carolina, the rates are alarmingly high.
Keeping our babies healthy is a top priority for Latinas. Studies have shown that Latinas tend to choose to breast-feed more than women of other demographic groups, and that reduced breastfeeding is correlated with lower incomes. For many Latina Moms who are employed, breastfeeding becomes a luxury rather than a choice. Yet, the benefits of breastfeeding for women and infants are critical to public health. Breast milk provides nutrients and antibodies that protect babies from disease. Infant formula has not been able to fully replicate these protections. In addition, breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, and postpartum depression in moms. The IOM recognized some of the real barriers to acquiring information and services about managing work and breastfeeding, including access to breast pumps. This support will be a huge boon to working Latinas.
Finally, women will also get access to a well visit without co-pays every year. It’s a remarkably different set of priorities to make being healthy the goal of healthcare, rather than simply treating illness. Predictably, political opponents of reproductive health care are pulling abortion politics into the conversation and attempting to derail this progress. That is why last year we launched the first Latina Week of Action for Reproductive Justice focused specifically on this issue. And this February, we continued our efforts with the Birth Control: Nuestra Salud, Nuestra Prevención campaign to lift the voices of Latinas and all women who are advocating for access to prescription birth control without co-pays under the health law.
While the IOM ruling is great news, it is only a first step. The Department of Health and Human Services is not required to accept the recommendations. Our focus now is on urging Heath and Human Services officials to quickly adopt all of these recommendations. Latina voices are being heard in increasing numbers. IOM stood up for Latinas and their families. We should praise their work and stand firm in insisting that their recommendations become reality.