MONDAY, Aug. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Beginning Aug. 1, 2012, women in the United States will have their birth control covered by insurance companies, free of co-pays, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday.
"Most private health care plans, including the private health care plan available to members of Congress, already include most of these services, including contraception. Family planning is something that keeps women healthy, and it was an important piece of today's announcement," Stephanie Cutter, a White House advisor, told ABC News Monday.
The move to make contraception free to women is one of eight new measures aimed at providing "preventive health services" to women, the HHS said. They follow on recommendations from a report issued July 19 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which advises the federal government.
The new initiatives are based on those recommendations and seek to expand women's access to preventive services under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
"The Affordable Care Act helps stop health problems before they start," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an agency statement released Monday. "These historic guidelines are based on science and existing literature, and will help ensure women get the preventive health benefits they need."
The IOM report was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to identify "gaps in preventive services for women as well as measures that will further ensure women's health and well-being," the agency said.
In addition to insurance coverage for birth control, the HHS is also mandating free coverage of the following:
"New health plans will need to include these services without cost sharing for insurance policies with plan years beginning on or after August 1, 2012," the HHS said. The agency added that, "plans will retain the flexibility to control costs and promote efficient delivery of care by, for example, continuing to charge cost-sharing for branded drugs if a generic version is available and is just as effective and safe for the patient to use."
In a statement issued at the time the IOM panel released its report, committee chair Linda Rosenstock, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles said that "the eight services we identified are necessary to support women's optimal health and well-being. Each recommendation stands on a foundation of evidence supporting its effectiveness."
By adding birth control to the list of recommendations, the committee said it hopes to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies, which make up almost half of all pregnancies in the United States.
The HHS noted that not every health insurance plan must comply with the new directive, however. "The administration also released an amendment to the prevention regulation that allows religious institutions that offer insurance to their employees the choice of whether or not to cover contraception services," the agency said.
Reaction to the HHS's announcement on birth control varied.
"Today is a historic victory for women's health and women across the country," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. "The decision by HHS is monumental for millions of women who have struggled with the cost of birth control and other essential health-care services such as cervical cancer and HIV screening," she said.
However, Jeanne Monahan, director of Family Research Council's Center for Human Dignity, said at the time of the IOM report that "several drugs have been approved by the FDA to be legally categorized as 'emergency contraceptives,' despite functioning in ways that can destroy a preborn baby before or after implanting in the mother's womb. A federal mandate to all insurance plans to include drugs such as ella essentially would mandate coverage for abortion."
Besides insurance coverage for contraception, the committee also recommends patient education and counseling for all women of reproductive age.
The IOM report said many women with unintended pregnancies aren't likely to receive prenatal care, are more likely to smoke, more likely to be depressed and more likely to be victims of domestic violence during pregnancy.
Unintended pregnancy also increases the risk for a preterm delivery or a low birth-weight infant. Both these conditions increase the risk for health and developmental problems for a child, the report said.
Women need more preventive care due to pregnancy and other conditions, which can leave them with more out-of-pocket costs than men. So, adding these services to preventive care can help level the field with men when it comes to costs, the committee said.
For more on preventive care, visit HealthCare.gov.
SOURCES: Aug. 1, 2011, news release, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; July 19, 2011, Institute of Medicine report, Clinical Preventive Services for Women: Closing the Gaps; July 19, 2011, news release, Family Research Council's Center for Human Dignity; August 1, 2011, news release, Planned Parenthood
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