Free Birth Control Now Required for New Insurance Plans

New federal guidelines require new health insurance plans to cover contraception without charging a co-pay or a deductible

While Democrats and Republicans continue battling over what some on Twitter are calling #debtzilla (yes, it’s gotten that bad!), it’s hard to think there is anything government related that both sides might actually agree on. I thought we found something -- news out of Washington that health insurance companies, for the very first time, will be required to cover a range of preventive health services for women at no additional cost beginning in August 2012. We are talking about so-called "well-woman visits", screening for gestational diabetes and the human papillomavirus (HPV), counseling for domestic violence and support for breastfeeding services -- all to be covered without a co-payment, co-insurance or a deductible. Hooray, I shouted, applauding the end to the discrimination I believe women often face when it comes to what’s covered and what’s not by insurance companies. But not all women are clapping their hands.

That’s because one of the services that will be covered is access to FDA-approved birth control methods and contraceptive counseling. While many women support such a move, since this could help women who can’t afford birth control get the contraception they need to prevent unwanted pregnancies, anti-abortion rights groups see it quite differently, and are especially outraged at coverage of the so-called “morning-after” pill. “The real issue is not about ‘birth control’ as such, but rather specific contraceptives that can function as abortifacients, in particular, emergency contraceptives,” Jeanne Monahan, director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Human Dignity told LifeNews. “This isn’t a matter of opinion or political ideology.”

In response, Lois Uttley, co-founder of the advocacy group, Raising Women’s Voices for the Health Care We Need told iVillage, “The FDA has been clear that emergency contraception is contraception, not abortion and all the scientific evidence strongly supports that statement.”

The “morning after” pill will be covered under new plans, but it will only be free with a doctor’s prescription, according to Health and Human Services (HHS) officials. Most private employer health plans already have contraception coverage in place, according to these officials, and 28 states require insurance companies to cover contraception. A majority of those states have an amendment allowing religious organizations to opt out of covering contraceptive services. HHS has a similar amendment in place.

“Since birth control is the most common drug prescribed to women ages 18 to 44, insurance plans should cover it. Not doing it would be like not covering flu shots or any of the other basic preventive services that millions of Americans count on every day,” said Kathleen Sebelius, Health & Human Services Secretary, in a conference call with reporters.

The Department of Health of Health and Human Services asked the Institute of Medicine, a leading medical advisory panel, to come up with recommendations for women’s preventive care based on the latest science, and after consulting with the medical community. Sebelius said her department is now implementing those recommendations. Only new insurance plans that are created will be impacted. The mandatory requirements will not be “grandfathered” into current plans.

It is hard to ignore the big picture. These new provisions, including contraception, well-woman visits, domestic violence screening, gestational diabetes and HPV screening and sexually transmitted disease counseling are estimated to help 34 million women between the ages of 18 to 64 by 2013. This should send a message to women, doctors and insurance companies that women’s health is as important as men’s health and that cost shouldn’t be a reason to skimp on health care.

According to a recent study, half of women avoid or delay seeking preventive health care because of the cost, said Sebelius. Many women have not been using contraception consistently, since they are often unable to pay the $20 to $50 co-pay, said Uttley. “We have heard from women who have been skipping their birth control pills or taking them every other day. All of that is a prescription for having an unintended pregnancy,” she added.

“No woman in America,” said Sebelius, should have to “choose between paying a grocery bill and paying the co-pay for preventive care that could save her life.” Once again, I say, “Hooray for that!

Kelly Wallace is Chief Correspondent of iVillage. Follow Kelly on Twitter @kellywallacetv

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