The United States is rapidly falling behind the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to life expectancy, and no demographic is facing a more rapid decline in life expectancy than women. According to a new study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, the life expectancy of the American woman is not just growing too slowly — in 313 American counties, it is actually declining.
In these counties, primarily located in the Southeast, Central Appalachia, and the lower Midwest, life expectancy rates for women are as many as 50 years behind the best-performing countries. In other words, the worst female life expectancy rates in the U.S. are equal to the rate the best countries experienced in the 1950s.
Researchers and analysts caution against attributing the decline to any one factor, but say it is clear that “income plays a very large role in determining adult health outcomes,” suggesting that poverty and socioeconomic status play a key role in raising — or lowering — life expectancy. And while there may not be consensus as to why the decline is occurring, University of Wisconsin professor Dave Kindig told Remapping Debate that, to reverse the trend, the U.S. needs to strengthen its investment into public health programs, particularly those focused on preventive medicine and nutrition:
“If we tripled our investment in public health, and did it in a smart way, we would almost certainly get that money back in savings in the long run because fewer people would be going to the hospital for heart attacks and strokes and cancer and diabetes.”
But the increasing political pressure to cap health care costs, he added, creates a vicious cycle. As more money is spent on treatment, the temptation is to spend less money on public health initiatives that are aimed at prevention. With fewer funds available to increase access in underserved areas, improve environmental conditions, and enhance health awareness, even more money will have to be spent on treatment, ultimately squeezing public health budgets even further.
In Congress and state legislatures across the country, however, Republicans have targeted public health programs for drastic spending cuts or full elimination, focusing especially on programs that benefit women the most. ThinkProgress compiled a list of the most drastic cuts the GOP has attempted to make to women’s health programs:
WIC: The GOP’s initial budget sought to cut 10 percent from the 2010 spending level for the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which provides aid to low-income pregnant and nursing women and their infant children. The spending resolution passed on April 12, which averted a government shutdown, slashed $500 million from WIC’s 2010 spending levels. Total cuts to the program for fiscal year 2012 are estimated at $833 million.
Title X: The budget plan the GOP released in February sought to eliminate funding for Title X, which provides family planning to low-income families, altogether. The program’s $317 million budget was cut by $17 million in the April 12 spending resolution.
Planned Parenthood: The GOP took the government to the brink of shutdown over funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides millions of women with basic health services each year. The deal to avoid a shutdown kept Planned Parenthood’s funding intact, but states across the country have sought to defund its state chapters. In Indiana, defunding Planned Parenthood kept thousands of women from getting care provided by Medicaid. Wisconsin is the latest state to launch an attack on the organization.
Medicare/Medicaid: The House GOP budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) would end Medicare as we know it and turn Medicaid into a block-grant system, disproportionately hurting women. Both programs aid more women than men, and women in general retire at lower incomes than men. The average retired woman earns $14,000 in income each year — $12,000 of which comes from Social Security. Under Ryan’s plan, the average female senior would pay all of that $12,000 for Medicare coverage.
Affordable Care Act: During the health care debate, Republicans fought to prevent maternity care from becoming a standard inclusion on medical plans and attempted to keep the bill from passing despite its many benefits for women. Those benefits include better coverage of preventive procedures like mammograms and cervical cancer scans, the establishment of community health centers to make it easier for low-income women to see doctors, and coverage protection for those with pre-existing conditions, all of which will save lives and allow women to stay healthier longer. The House GOP voted to repeal the law in January and has fought to defund many of its programs, including a Free Choice Voucher program that would have helped give low-income Americans more options when they chose their health coverage had it not been gutted by Republicans.
It’s not too late for the United States to reverse the trend and begin catching up to the best countries in the world when it comes to life expectancy. But cutting programs that are vital to ensuring women’s health is not the way to do it. As Kindig told Remapping Debate, this is a “national problem” that needs to be addressed now.
“Changing these trends is very much in the social and public interest,” he said. “We can’t just assume that everybody is going to get better eventually if we continue down the same path.”