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    Wednesday, June 12, 2024

    Actor Halle Berry joins senators on Capitol Hill to unveil $275M bill to boost menopause care

    Congressional leaders unveiled Thursday a $275 million bill to boost federal research, physician training and public awareness about menopause, a campaign led by prominent female lawmakers and boosted by the star power of actor Halle Berry.

    The bipartisan Senate bill, the Advancing Menopause Care and Mid-Life Women’s Health Act, is led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and has support from Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and other lawmakers. The legislation has been championed by Berry, who has discussed her experience with menopause-related misdiagnoses and joined female senators at a news conference Thursday at the U.S. Capitol.

    Murray and her colleagues are framing the legislation as an initial effort to boost services and support for a condition they say is widely misunderstood. Many physicians say they receive little training about menopause, which all women experience around midlife and involves symptoms such as exhaustion, hot flashes and night sweats. Only 31 percent of surveyed OB/GYNs in 2022 said they had a menopause curriculum in their residency training programs, and patients and providers have said they are confused about potential treatments.

    “There’s not enough information” about menopause, Murray said in an interview. “It is overlooked, it’s underinvested in, and it’s been left behind. And it is about time that our country and everyone really started taking this seriously.”

    Physicians get “training in sexually transmitted diseases … they get trained in surgical operations. But they don’t get training in this major event that affects 100 percent of women who live later in life,” said Pauline Maki, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor and researcher who has investigated the effects of menopause and consulted on the legislation.

    The bill would authorize $125 million in menopause-related research grants through the National Institutes of Health, create a $50 million public awareness campaign about the condition, fund $50 million in additional training for health workers and provide $50 million to improve diagnosis and treatment of chronic conditions affecting women at midlife. The legislation also includes new federal requirements, such as directing the Department of Health and Human Services to report to Congress on its menopause work.

    The bipartisan attention on menopause comes as Democrats focus their election-year agenda on reproductive health issues such as abortion, birth control and in vitro fertilization, and as first lady Jill Biden has steered a White House initiative on women’s health research. House lawmakers, including Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., and Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., have also advocated for more public awareness and clinician education.

    “We are taking the lack of knowledge, the isolation and sometimes shame out of this natural experience women go through and putting women and their well-being front and center,” Blunt Rochester said in a statement.

    Murray said lawmakers are trying to take an expansive view of women’s health at all phases of life. As chair of the Senate’s appropriations committee, Murray helps write the chamber’s spending legislation - virtually ensuring the menopause bill’s passage, so long as she is committed to it.

    “To be blunt, when men are in charge, they might listen, but they don’t take it as a priority,” Murray said. “We now have women in top positions. We know these issues. We know they need to be a priority.”

    Several of the female senators joked, wryly, about the need for the legislation.

    “If men went through menopause, we would’ve adequately researched and funded menopause research decades ago,” Murkowski said.

    “If men were affected, there would be a large NIH institute totally dedicated to every aspect of menopause,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., added.

    The menopause legislation has a high-profile champion in Hollywood: Berry, who has made repeated trips to Washington to share her personal story of struggling to be diagnosed. In an interview, the Academy Award-winning actor said she spent about six months shuttling among doctors, who offered an array of diagnoses for her pain, exhaustion and other symptoms.

    “I call it my foggy days,” Berry said, adding that some diagnoses were “scarier than others.” One physician concluded she had an autoimmune disease and sought to prescribe steroids, she said.

    Berry later learned her symptoms stemmed from the onset of menopause and began to speak publicly about her experience, including in a January conversation with Jill Biden and in conversations with lawmakers that were detailed last year by Politico.

    Berry said she knew that menopause affected women at midlife — but was surprised when she began to go through it at 54.

    “I thought because I was healthy, I exercised … I could probably just skip it,” Berry said, adding that her experience left her frustrated about the lack of menopause education for patients and providers, and motivated her to “do something about it.”

    Hannah Linkenhoker, a political strategist who runs the legislative arm of JSSK, an entertainment law firm that represents Berry, connected the actor to Murray’s office last summer and has continued to work with Berry on the broader effort. It is the second time that Berry has been closely involved in political advocacy: A decade ago, she shepherded a 2013 anti-paparazzi bill in California.

    Berry said she plans to stick to her day job in Hollywood, but she left open the possibility of returning to Washington for future advocacy efforts. “When I feel there’s a need for something, then I’ll be the first one here fighting,” she said.

    At Thursday’s news conference, she vowed to personally urge holdout senators to sign onto the bill and called on other women to press their lawmakers on the issue. “Demand to be heard,” she said.

    Murray praised Berry’s contributions on the menopause legislation, saying the actor had been an “amazing” partner in working to secure support for the bill on Capitol Hill, and she predicted Berry would be a key spokeswoman when communicating the bill to the public.

    “Her passion has given permission for other people to step forward and say … this shouldn’t be something we silently accept,” Murray said.

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