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A coalition of Louisiana health and women’s advocates – more than 50 organizations representing a spectrum of women’s and health organizations united to improve the health of women in the state – has been pushing for years to establish an Office on Women’s Health.

That work finally paid off when Gov. John Bel Edwards signed Senate Bill 116 by Sen. Regina Barrow into law in June, creating the Office on Women’s Health within the Louisiana Department of Health.

The office is to be “responsible for leading and coordinating efforts within the Louisiana Department of Health that are intended to improve women’s health outcomes through policy, education, evidence-based practices, programs, and services.” 

In October, the coalition celebrated the creation of the Office on Women’s Health through legislation sponsored by Senator Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge.

Pictured from left: Frankie Robertson, Renee Antoine, Amy Irvin, Alfreda Tillman Bester, Rosalind Blanco Cook, Alma Stewart Allen, Terri L. Byrd, Summer Steib, Diane Hargrove Jupiter, Deborah W. Jones

The LSU Women’s Center hosted supporters and advocates of the Office on Women’s Health, including panelists: Deborah W. Jones, Provider Engagement and Community Outreach Representative at UnitedHealthcare Community Plan, Diane Hargrove Jupiter, Board Chair of Louisiana Center of Health Equity (LCHE), Rosalind Blanco Cook, Co-President of League of Women Voters of New Orleans, Summer Steib, Director at LSU Women’s Center, Terri L. Byrd, National Congress of Black Women, Frankie Robertson, President of The Amandla Group, Amy Irvin, Director of Creative Community League, Renee Antoine, Executive Director of the Office on Women’s Policy Office of the Governor.

Although the coalition knows the bill passed is far from perfect, they acknowledge it’s a step in the right direction. The coalition preferred House Bill 90 by Representative C. Denise Marcelle. Her initial bill was introduced in 2021 but was amended to include among many things, restrictive language on abortion. The coalition did not include any language about abortion in any of its proposals to avoid resistance and opted for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) more neutral guidance on reproductive health.

“We knew it would be next to impossible to get pro-choice language included in the bill, says Alma Stewart Allen, Louisiana Center for Health Equity founder and president.

Other Amends to SB 116 included changing the scope of the office from across the state to a coordinated effort within the state’s already established department of health. The definition of woman as born biological female was also inserted. Another edit to the bill was adding Community Health to the title of the Office on Women’s Health which Stewart Allen believes, “dilutes the goal of focusing specifically on women.” The official name is the Office on Women’s Health and Community Health.

Although advocates didn’t get everything on their wish list, they vow to continue to work as a collective to improve health outcomes for women in the state. They also stressed the importance of accountability and emphasized civic engagement and voting as essential to a better future for women and girls.

“Elections have consequences,” Summer Steib, Director at LSU Women’s Center noted.

“There is a dire need to focus on women’s health in this state due to high infant mortality and maternal death rates,” says Stewart Allen. “The new office must value inclusiveness, transparency and accountability and work with the advocates who have labored for years to see the office be established.”

The consortium of advocates have a wealth of experience in women’s health and advocacy issues and wants a voice in the process of establishing the Office. They want to know what will be the priorities of the office, who will the office actual serve and what services will be provided. They emphasize the new Office must focus on the determinants of health and not just a health diagnosis or condition. 

“We need to look at the underlining issues that cause and perpetuates health disparities in local parishes and rural communities, says Stewart Allen. “We have to look at equity.

How are services being provided and how are we holding providers accountable and not just paying them for services?”

Stewart Allen, a nurse, believes you must be inclusive to provide quality healthcare. It’s why she founded The Louisiana Center for Health Equity.

“The establishment of the office was not the coalition’s final goal. The goal was to improve health outcomes for women by having a programmatic focus on women’s issues to accomplish real health improvements in our state. We still have a long, long way to go but this is progress. We still have a lot of work to do.”

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Kelly Harris-DeBerry

Kelly Harris-DeBerry is a poet and freelance writer. "Freedom Knows My Name" is her debut book. Her website is www.kellyhd.com