Saying that women are dying unnecessarily because of sexism and neglect in medical research, a group of women in Congress said yesterday they want a federal Office of Women's Health that would combat bias in clinical medicine.
The Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues announced it will introduce a broad-based legislative package today that will address women's health problems, including breast cancer and osteoporosis.
The proposals include more than $50 million for additional research, expanding Medicare coverage for women who are older or pregnant, and establishing federal centers to study contraception and infertility.
Caucus members criticized the medical research establishment, especially the federally funded National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, saying that too little money and effort have been devoted to diseases that afflict women.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who plans to sponsor the legislation in the Senate, cited studies that show that NIH officials "spent less than 14 percent of their research budget on women's health projects . . . and only three researchers out of 2,000 at the whole institute specialize in obstetrics and gynecology.
"This is blatant discrimination," Mikulski said. "It is inexcusable, unforgivable, and we will not allow it to continue."
Rep. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), one of the House sponsors, said, "We have the resources, the ability and the skills in this country to address women's health issues. What we lack is the education. And that's what we're trying to address."
Several elements of the legislative package face difficult prospects. Efforts to expand Medicare eligibility must contend with the ballooning federal budget deficit. Funding for research into contraception will almost certainly be opposed by Catholics and others who believe artificial birth control is immoral. And some high-profile "women's issues," such as federal funding for day care, have not fared well in recent years.
But the caucus has found a receptive audience at NIH, where officials agree that women have been shortchanged in previous research efforts.
William F. Raub, NIH's acting director, "has acknowledged that these are areas that need sustained, high-priority attention," said Don Ralbovsky, an NIH spokesman. "These criticisms are valid, and we will move quickly to address the problems."
Mikulski and Rep. Constance A. Morella (R), whose Montgomery County district includes NIH, said they hope to add money for women's health research to the NIH budget. "NIH is already calling my office like it's 911," Mikulski said.
"They may win the Nobel prize, but I'd like to see them get the Good Housekeeping seal of approval."