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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cantor’s Gender Problem

At a press stakeout on Capitol Hill today, House GOP Whip Eric Cantor sounded bullish about his party’s success in pouring cold water on the idea of a "government option," or a federal health insurance plan that would compete with private plans. That’s fine, but he made one statement that puzzled us:

Cantor, 9/9: I think intuitively that most Americans believe that more government in health care means more rationing and more forced discrimination on the basis of gender and age.

The charge that forced gender discrimination could be in our health care future was a new one for us. We asked a spokesman for Cantor to help us understand. He wrote us an email in response, saying that "If a government official proposes to stop funding breast cancer research – the government would be accused of discriminating against women." We would agree, particularly if it was only breast cancer research for which funding was stopped. So far we’ve heard nobody in the health care debate suggest any reduction in such funding, let alone elimination. (May we suggest that the phrase "political suicide" might be apt here?)

The spokesman also gave us a real example, involving past criticism of the National Institutes of Health for not including enough women in its clinical trials. That’s true. In the 1980s the matter drew public attention, leading Congress to pass a law in 1993 to remedy the problem. In 2000, the General Accounting Office produced a report saying that NIH had made "significant progress" in bringing gender balance to the research.

We’re not sure if Cantor would argue that the government shouldn’t be involved in medical research. But at any rate, this wasn’t a case of government encouraging "forced discrimination on the basis of gender" as Cantor put it. And it has nothing to do with providing health insurance. It’s an example of the government correcting discrimination in research.

Moreover, there’s evidence that under the current system, the private insurance industry discriminates against women. It was reported last year that insurers charge women more, sometimes hundreds of dollars a year more, than men for the same health coverage. That’s something the pending legislation in the House aims to fix. According to the Energy and Commerce Committee’s press release, "Insurance companies will no longer be able to discriminate on the basis of pre-existing conditions or drop coverage for those who become seriously ill. Insurers will no longer be able to discriminate on the basis of gender or selectively refuse to renew coverage."

Cantor’s spokesman also mentioned two articles from British newspapers. One was about a male cancer victim who was denied access to a new cancer drug by the national health system. That has nothing to do with gender discrimination. The other was about babies being born in elevators and other unusual locales in the UK, allegedly because the government had failed to spend enough on hospital maternity facilities.

That may be true. But as we’ve said repeatedly, none of the bills that have traction here in the U.S., including those that introduce a public plan to co-exist with private insurance, are like the British national health care system, and President Obama has said he’s not advocating single payer health coverage. We’re not voicing approval or disapproval of pending proposals to change the health care system, but we do know that they didn’t come from across the pond.