The photo of a room full of white men at the White House discussing health care, including maternity care, on Thursday sparked immediate disbelief. Many wondered how a group of men could make decisions about whether insurance companies must cover maternal and newborn care.
How indeed, when many men in Congress and state houses around the country have a shocking lack of knowledge about what they view as women’s health care, and health insurance in general.
On Thursday, the day the White House photo was taken and tweeted by Vice President Mike Pence, Kansas Republican Rep. Pat Roberts was asked whether he supported what are known as essential health benefits, such as emergency services, pediatric care and prescription medications. “I wouldn’t want to lose my mammograms,” he quipped. Earlier in the day, when asked by CNN if mammograms should be covered by insurance, he said: “Not for me.”
Roberts later apologized for his remarks, which not only demean women but ignore the fact that men also get breast cancer.
Earlier in the week, at a town hall meeting in Kentucky, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin joked: “I don’t need maternity benefits because I don’t expect I’ll be expecting.”
These men either don’t understand how insurance works or are willfully misrepresenting how it does work. For any insurance plan to be effective, large numbers of people must be included in the insurance pool. Some will be women, some men. Some old, some young. Some will have heart attacks. Other won’t. Some will have babies. Some will develop prostate cancer or erectile dysfunction.
Some in the pool may be extremely healthy and have only regular checkups. Some may be sicker and need multiple surgeries and a lifetime of medication. Do the healthy subsidize the sick? Yes, but one never knows when they, too, may unexpectedly need expensive care, either because of an illness or an accident.
That is why developing a functional health insurance system is so difficult.
The all-male photo and comments like those from Roberts and Bevin also highlight the dangers of making policy without women in the room. Women make up nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population, but they fill less than 20 percent of the seats in Congress. Out of the 104 female members of Congress, only 26 are Republican. None are members of the House Freedom Caucus, the group captured in the White House photograph.
The U.S. is now ranked 100th in the world, behind countries like Rwanda, Macedonia and Afghanistan, in terms of women’s representation in government, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The U.S. was ranked 52nd two decades ago.
This isn’t just about numbers, it is about better policy. In addition to sponsoring more legislation related to family issues, the involvement of women in their government improves how it works. Women tend to be more collaborative, so they get more legislation passed. Think Sen. Susan Collins working to end government shutdowns and Senate breakdowns over judicial nominations.
“If we care about taking advantage of all the skills and diversity of perspectives in our population, then we should care about seeing both parties nominate and elect more women,” Christina Wolbrecht, a political scientist at Notre Dame University, told Vox, which looked at the lack of women in the U.S. government last year.
Having more women in government isn’t about eliminating unflattering photos or ending uninformed, embarrassing comments. It is about crafting better policies and laws for all Americans.