Valerie Jarrett: Why the Senate must prioritize women

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  • Valerie Jarrett: As we wait for the Senate to produce its bill, it is tempting to give in to anger and frustration
  • What motivates me to keep fighting are the incredible personal stories the Affordable Care Act made possible, she writes

Valerie Jarrett is a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and former chairwoman of the White House Council on Women and Girls. She is a former board member of Planned Parenthood Chicago. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN)Once again, women's health is in the crosshairs.

Valerie Jarrett
The budget unveiled by the White House last month adds insult to the injury of the GOP health bill passed earlier by the House of Representatives, which the Congressional Budget Office says will lead to 23 million more uninsured Americans and cuts $800 billion from Medicaid -- legislation The New York Times dubbed, "especially disastrous for women." Taken together, women's ability to access necessary treatment and services and to secure insurance to pay for it are at a risk unseen in the contemporary era.
Now, as the Senate returns from recess and gets to work drafting its measure, we must be sure to hold Congress accountable. A bill that puts women last is unacceptable.
    Included in the disastrous House bill are provisions blocking women from going to Planned Parenthood for preventive care (including birth control and cancer screenings), gutting maternity care and other essential health benefits, and making health care unaffordable for millions by allowing insurance companies in states that waive coverage rules to charge women who've given birth, or survived cancer, more for their premiums. If this bill and the budget becomes law, all women -- but especially working-class women, and poor women, as well as their families -- will suffer dire consequences to their health and lives. We can't let this happen.
    Given this reality, it's time to reflect on what it really means to support women and girls, truly creating a country where every American thrives.
    Let's be clear once and for all: The entire conversation is a nonstarter without full support for women's health. It's on us to make sure every senator understands this.
    During my eight years in the White House, I chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls. I was responsible for bringing elected officials, business and community leaders together to help drive the economy, expand access to the middle class, and most importantly, working to ensure equality and opportunity for all Americans, especially women and girls.
    Of all this work, that last point — providing equality and opportunity to all — drove the agenda of the council. President Obama created the council to ensure that federal agencies were prioritizing the needs of women and girls in their policies, programs and legislation — with the understanding that it is the government's highest purpose to help ensure all Americans are able to compete on a level playing field and achieve their dreams. He knew that the issues women face today, such as access to paid family and medical leave, equal pay for equal work, and affordable health care, are all connected and intertwined.
    Planned Parenthood has a key role to play in access to affordable health care for women, and by extension their access to equality. Yet, Republican leaders in Congress have continued to push to "defund" Planned Parenthood and block women from going there to receive care. That is the opposite of what the White House Council on Women and Girls stood for, and if enacted, would result in millions of women losing access to care.
    While much about the House of Representatives' efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act was troubling, one of the most egregious moves was voting on the bill without even waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to update its analysis of the impact the legislation would have on the American people or the federal budget.
    As the Senate has now turned to writing its version of the health care bill, as a former White House official who spent a lot of time focusing on women and girls, I am also troubled that Senate leaders appointed 13 men and zero women to their working group responsible for drafting their version of an ACA repeal bill. How could they not know that our interests cannot be adequately represented if we are not at the table?
    As we wait for the Senate to produce its bill, it is tempting to give in to the anger and frustration that is so prevalent in our national discourse these days. But what motivates me to keep fighting are the incredible personal stories of access, treatment, recovery and hope that the Affordable Care Act made possible.
    Planned Parenthood is a foundational part of that effort, and its work in providing access to care has helped people across our country take control of their health and lives. Two and a half million people visit Planned Parenthood each year for preventive health care, including birth control, cancer screenings and STD testing and treatment. One in five women in America relies on Planned Parenthood over her lifetime. For more than 100 years, it has helped women in this country get the care they need, which in turn has enabled women to contribute so much to this country.
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    The ACA was born of advocacy and I believe advocacy will save the ACA and health care for millions of women. That's where voters come in. As the Senate drafts its version, I hope that millions of Americans tell their senators they must protect the health of women.