US women win in health reforms
The US government has announced sweeping changes that will require health care insurance plans to cover a host of women’s health services including birth control pills at no extra cost.
Women’s advocates hailed the move as a major advance but expressed disappointment over a clause that exempts religious groups, while conservatives blasted the plan for including free access to emergency contraceptives.
The new rules, which take effect in August next year, should save American women hundreds of dollars per year in out-of-pocket healthcare costs for eight preventive care services, including breast-feeding help and STD screening.
“These historic guidelines are based on science and existing literature and will help ensure women get the preventive health benefits they need,” said Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The changes are part of Obama’s health care reform initiative, the Affordable Care Act, signed into law last year.
The latest move means some key services will be covered under health insurance plans without women having to pay out of pocket through partial co-pays or by meeting a deductible limit first.
Among them are “FDA-approved contraception methods and contraceptive counselling; breast-feeding support, supplies, and counselling; and domestic violence screening and counselling”, HHS said.
Also included are annual office check-ups, or well-woman visits, screening for gestational diabetes, human papillomavirus (HPV) testing for women 30 and older, sexually transmitted infection counselling and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) screening and counselling.
An amendment was added to the rules to allow religious institutions that provide health insurance for their employees to decide “whether or not to cover contraception services”, HHS said.
The National Organization for Women joined a host of women’s advocacy groups in applauding the changes, but took issue with the religious loophole.
“Forcing insurance companies to cover contraception is one of the most important things you can do for women’s health,” NOW president Terry O’Neill said.
“The fanatics who want to withhold birth control from women should not be coddled by the secretary of health and human services, so we are deeply disappointed that she would do this.”
Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien said Obama’s administration “has once again sided with the Catholic bishops over the needs of women and their families”.
“The vast majority of people, including Catholics, in the United States have used a method of family planning banned by the Vatican,” he said.
The conservative Family Research Council’s Jeanne Monahan said the religious exemption did not go far enough, describing it as a “fig leaf of conscience protection for certain churches that fulfill very specific criteria”.
She also highlighted the group’s concerns over coverage of two emergency contraceptive options, which can be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.
“This administration is promoting mandates that will violate the consciences of millions,” she said.
The recommendations were made by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in a July 19 report that urged that the health services be covered in order to improve the state of women’s health.
Women in the United States tend to face higher costs to maintain their health than men because of a range of reproductive conditions that are unique to them. Often, private health insurance covers only part of the annual costs.
The IOM said DNA tests for HPV could cut back on cervical cancer rates, and free access to lactation counselling and equipment could boost rates of breastfeeding by new mums, a practice that is considered beneficial to babies’ health.
Free access to contraception could also cut back on the rate of unintended pregnancies in the United States, where about half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the IOM said.
The US government said health plans could save money by “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”.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 98 per cent of American women have used contraception at some point in their lives.
A 2010 study in the journal Contraception said that average out-of-pocket expenses for contraception were about $US168 ($A153) per year, making up 29 per cent of a woman’s annual self-paid costs for health care.
This article was distributed by Agence France Presse.