Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Tells iVillage "Historic" New Guidelines Cover Contraception, Not Abortion

One day after announcing new preventive health care regulations that will affect millions of women, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius takes on critics in an exclusive interview with iVillage

In an exclusive interview with iVillage, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius hailed new federal guidelines requiring new insurance plans to cover women’s preventive health care services, including contraception, at no additional cost, as a “huge step forward” and “historic.”  

Since the new guidelines were announced, there has been a heated debate about the move, namely that free birth control coverage would include the “morning after” pill. Anti-abortion rights groups said this was comparable to the federal government mandating coverage of abortion.

“The science which has guided these recommendations is very clear,” Sebelius told iVillage. “There are clearly drugs that are more akin to an abortion procedure. None of those are covered as part of these preventive services.” What is covered, according to Sebelius, is what the FDA classifies as contraception. “The Food and Drug Administration has a category [of drugs] that prevent fertilization and implantation. That’s really the scientific definition. So it’s unfortunate there are some folks who continue to debate the science around fertility and what drugs do and do not do. These covered prescription drugs are specifically those that are designed to prevent implantation. They are contraceptives, they are not abortion pills.”

There is, however, an amendment that would allow religious organizations providing insurance plans to opt out of covering contraception, based on a “conscience clause” currently found in a majority of the 28 states that require contraception be part of any prescription drug package, said Sebelius. “This is a rule that is being put out for comments,” she said. “We welcome comments. I’m sure we’ll get comments, people who say it’s too narrow, some who say it’s too broad, but there is a lot of common ground,” said Sebelius. “I would think there would be good common ground around appropriate, acceptable, available contraception as a big, important, preventive measure for women in their reproductive years. It just makes sense.”

During our interview, Sebelius also talked to iVillage about how women are more likely to be underinsured than men; how Governor Rick Scott (R-Florida) refused millions of dollars in health care grants because he objects to the health care reform law; and how the appearance of Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) on the floor of the House of Representatives to vote on the debt ceiling was “the highlight of a very difficult struggle.”

More highlights from our interview:

iVillage: What will the new requirements for covering women’s preventive health care services ultimately mean for the average iVillage woman?
Secretary Sebelius:  Well, I think its very good news for women. First of all, these guidelines are historic. There has never been a scientific look at the specific health needs women have that are unique to our bodies and our health histories. So starting a year from now, at the beginning of August 2012, all new health plans in the private market will be required to cover a variety of additional services with no co-pay and no charge to women. Those include domestic violence screenings, contraceptive services, well-women visits, screenings for diabetes, HIV screening and counseling, breastfeeding support, supplies and counseling. Insurance plans will have to cover services that women need.

iVillage: Regarding free birth control coverage, how many women will benefit?
Secretary Sebelius: Contraception is the most covered prescription drug for women between ages 14 to 40.  It is the most commonly prescribed drug by their doctors. We also know that women traditionally are more likely to be underinsured and not have the full range of services they need. Also, data has documented over and over again that women pay more out of pocket than men do for their health care services, often because the services they need are not necessarily part of their benefits package. So, I don’t think there is any question that millions of women will benefit from this. We think about 34 million women, by the time we reach 2013, will be in new plans [with this new coverage].

iVillage: As a former governor, what do you make of the governor of Florida, a state with the fourth largest unemployment rate, turning down millions of dollars in grants under the Affordable Care Act because he doesn’t support the law?
Secretary Sebelius: I think it’s unfortunate. We have certainly seen this play out here in Washington in the past month or two, where there are some newly elected officials on the Republican side that have decided that their political ideology is more important than anything -- more important than the health needs of their citizens, more important than the economic stability of the economy, more important than the future of jobs in America -- so I think it is very unfortunate for citizens of Florida. It is very troubling for someone to suggest that they will not accept the resources that Congress wisely put forward so that states could really become the implementers of this bill. The irony in the way the law is written is that if Governor Scott chooses in Florida not to move ahead, the Affordable Care Act directs the Department of Health and Human Services to [implement it]. So the citizens of Florida will have the advantage of an exchange, they will have the same kind of rules that we just talked about. The women of Florida will have the same kind of preventive health plans that everyone else will around the country. The governor has really just ceded his own authority to the federal government, kind of an irony for someone who believes that the states should be deciding what’s going on.

iVillage: Can I ask about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and what it means, as a woman, as a lawmaker, to see her on the floor of the House?
Secretary Sebelius: I think it was clearly the highlight of a very difficult struggle. I think it puts in perspective the struggles that people go through every day. To watch Gabby Giffords mobilize that strength and resolve to make that trip back to Washington and to be on the floor, I think it very symbolically said, "Its going to be okay, I’m here, I’m participating, I’m fighting my way back, we need to fight our way back as a country." I think it was just a very uplifting and wonderful moment, and she certainly gave a gift to her colleagues and the country to watch that active, incredible bravery and stamina, and there is no question that everybody is rooting for her full and speedy recovery. But seeing her on the floor of the house was terrific.

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

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