The latest skirmish in the so-called war on women has to do with, of all things, interest rates on student loans. More specifically, the effort by House Republicans to offset the cost of a federal student loan bill by cutting funding from a $15 billion preventive health fund included in the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
When Democrats, particularly women in the party, heard the plan, they were quick to compare it directly to what they say is a growing list of assaults on women's health and reproductive rights over the past two years, including efforts to scale back abortion and contraceptive rights.
"Let's take the money out of women's health rather than big subsidies to big oil," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at a news conference last week to blast the measure.
House Speaker John Boehner, however, during floor debate on the bill (which passed, 215-195), insisted that the women's health issue in the interest rate bill is a bogus one. "Give me a break," he said, calling the "so-called war on women" something that is "entirely created by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain."
So who's right?
Well, , it seems both sides may have points, at least when it comes to the preventive health fund.
The overall purpose of what's technically known as the "Prevention and Public Health Investment Fund," wrote former Democratic Senate staffer John McDonough, is to "increase funding for any program authorized by the Public Health Service Act for 'prevention, wellness and public health activities including prevention research and health screenings, such as the Community Transformation grant program the Education and Outreach Campaign for Preventive Benefits, and immunization programs."'
As White House Deputy Press Secretary Amy Brundage pointed out on the White House Blog last week, that's a pretty broad mandate. And it could clearly include health services aimed specifically at women. "Prevention Fund resources are expected to help more than 300,000 women be screened for breast cancer in 2013 and more than 280,000 be screened for cervical cancer," Brundage wrote.
But so far, at least, that's not what most of the money has been used for.
According to the public health group Trust for America's Health, the vast majority of the funds distributed so far have gone to programs aimed at beefing up the nation's public health infrastructure, and fighting obesity and tobacco use.
Those programs do help women, public health officials point out. "Women are half the population," one said.
But it's hardly the same as going after Planned Parenthood's funding.
Meanwhile, Democrats have already voted for a cut in the prevention fund's funding — to help pay for a payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits earlier this year. "All the more reason why we shouldn't be taking any more money out of it," said Pelosi when a reporter pointed that out to her.
Clearly going after the program is part of the GOP effort to defund the 2010 health law, which they despise. But part of a war on women? Not so much.
Meanwhile, the fight over the student loan interest rates won't get settled until Congress returns from recess next week, at the earliest.
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