Pennsylvania Women’s Health Caucus Unveils Second Package of Bills

State lawmakers unveiled the second wave of bills introduced as part of Pennsylvania’s Agenda for Women’s Health, a pro-active legislative effort designed to address women’s health and economic equality.

Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Capitol via Shutterstock

Members of Pennsylvania’s bipartisan Women’s Health Caucus unveiled the second wave of bills aimed at addressing women’s health and economic equality at a press conference at the capitol on Tuesday morning.

The Women’s Health Caucus was formed last spring in response to the unprecedented spike in the number of bills restricting women’s access to health-care services in states across the country, including several passed and implemented in Pennsylvania.

Legislators introduced the first wave of their Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health back in December, which addressed pay equity, buffer zones around health-care facilities, increased access to breast cancer screenings, sanitary workplace conditions for breastfeeding mothers, among other initiatives.

The second phase of the agenda features bills designed to curb interference in a patient’s relationship with her doctor, identify health-care gaps for female veterans, fight deep poverty among women and children, ensure widows of state and municipal employees receive fair pensions, and protect more women from sexual harassment.

Rep. Dan Frankel (D- Allegheny), co-chair of the Women’s Health Caucus, plans to sponsor what he is calling “Patient Trust” legislation.

“We’ve seen efforts across this country to mandate the conversation and medical advice that a physician or another medical professional is going to tell a woman,” said Frankel. “We saw an attempt to do that here in Pennsylvania with the ultrasound bill in the house.”

Frankel is referring to a mandatory ultrasound bill that was introduced in Pennsylvania but shortly thereafter shelved, following backlash to a similar law in Virginia and before the 2012 presidential primary. The bill mandated that doctors position the ultrasound screen close to the patient’s face, and then document for the state whether or not she looked at the screen. At the time, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) defended the bill by advising women to just close their eyes during the procedure.

Sources have told Rewire that they expect conservative lawmakers to revive an effort to pass a similar bill in the near future.

“We shouldn’t be forcing patients to accept being treated in a way that doesn’t help them just to satisfy the political agenda of some legislator,” said Frankel, calling such mandates “bad medicine.”

Frankel’s bill would prevent state-mandated intrusions into the doctor-patient relationship beyond transvaginal ultrasounds. In recent years, several states have introduced and in some cases passed legislation ordering doctors, for example, to advise patients that abortion increases risk of breast cancer and leads to psychological problems, despite evidence to the contrary.

The cascade of anti-science intrusions into the examination room have led to at least one doctor wondering if civil disobedience is the best response, though that action comes with considerable professional risk.

Another new initiative is a resolution to establish a Women’s Veterans Health Care Task Force. The task force will analyze the specific needs, including post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma, of female veterans in response to increasing awareness of rampant rape in the military and in anticipation of female soldiers returning from Afghanistan.

Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D- Lehigh) is sponsoring SB 2300, a bill that would amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to extend the prohibition on sexual harassment to all employers in Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvanians might actually be surprised to learn that that is not currently the case,” said Schlossberg. “At the moment, the prohibitions on sexual harassment apply only to companies with four or more employees.”

Meanwhile, Women’s Health Caucus members are still advocating for movement on some of the bills introduced last year as part of the first package.

Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks), co-chair of the caucus, is calling for action on SB 1167, a bill intended to deter and punish intimate partner harassment.

“The nature of these acts is particularly personal and malignant,” Schwank wrote in a memo seeking co-sponsorship. “And the abuse can be devastating to victims, who nationally have lost jobs, had relationships with family and friends severely damaged and found themselves stalked by strangers.”

It passed the senate but has been sitting in committee in the house since January.

Another bill that unexpectedly stalled is needed to protect victims of domestic violence by prohibiting municipalities from leveraging local nuisance ordinances to evict them from their homes. The legislation was drafted after a woman living in Norristown (a town a half-an-hour away from Philadelphia) reluctantly allowed an abusive former partner to move back in to her home because she feared calling for help would lead to eviction. After he moved in, he allegedly attacked her and beat her until she was unconscious.

As Rewire reported:

Norristown isn’t the only Pennsylvania municipality with this type of ordinance. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), there are 19 known “disorderly conduct” or “nuisance” ordinances reaching across the Commonwealth, in cities from Pittsburgh to Wilkes-Barre. There are also 59 others known throughout the country.

Though the bill initially had broad support, it stalled after the addition of a controversial and counterproductive amendment. As Rewire noted, “The controversial amendment would prohibit municipalities from enacting mandates requiring employers to provide paid or unpaid leave, such as vacation time or paid sick days, to their employees.”

Advocates say the amendment would work against the victims of domestic violence the bill was designed to protect. It passed the house, but has been sitting in the senate since March.

Some second-wave bills are still being drafted; all seven bills will be introduced within the next few months.