July 20, 2011

Health Experts Advise Free Birth Control For Women

A medical advisory board has recommended that the U.S. government provide free birth control to women under the nation's healthcare overhaul.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) group, which advises the government on complex issues regarding medical science and health care policy, recommends that health insurance companies cover birth control for women as part of a preventive service that requires no copayments.

"Covering birth control without co-pays is one of the most important steps we can take to prevent unintended pregnancy and keep women and children healthy," Dr. Vanessa Cullins, vice president for medical affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told Reuters Health.

Currently, most health plans are required by the Obama health care law to provide standard preventive care for both men and women at no additional cost to the patients.

The Associated Press (AP) reports that medical experts say as easier access to birth control is obtained, it paves the way for more reliable forms of long-acting birth control such as implants or IUDs, which are increasingly accepted by other economically developed countries.

But the issue of free birth control for women is not without opposition.

Religious and social conservatives like Catholic bishops believe pregnancy is a healthy condition. The government should not require insurance coverage of drugs and other methods to prevent it.

"Without sufficient legal protection for rights of conscience, such a mandate would force all men, women and children to carry health coverage that violates the deeply-held moral and religious convictions of many," Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the bishops' conference, told Reuters Health.

However, opponents can do little to block the recommendation, short from repealing the health care law provisions, reports the AP. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is expected to issue a final decision fairly soon.

"We are one step closer to saying goodbye to an era when simply being a woman was treated as a pre-existing condition," Senator Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who sponsored the women's health amendment, told the AP. "We are saying hello to an era where decisions about preventive care and screenings are made by a woman and her doctor."

According to government statistics, birth control use is quite universal in the United States, with generic versions of the pill costing as little as $9 a month at big drug store chains, reports the AP.

Even with these statistics, half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, with many of them occurring among women who use some form of contraception. Forgetting to use contraceptives could be a key factor for the unplanned pregnancies, and experts believe that longer acting forms of birth control would help.

"I'm really taken and pleased with the concept of making contraceptive methods available to women in general," Dr. James Martin Jr. of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists told Reuters Health. "It's just a shame that so many pregnancies in this country are unplanned and unwanted."

Other preventive services for women recommended by IOM include diabetes tests during pregnancy, support for breast-feeding mothers, screening for the virus that causes cervical cancer, counseling for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, lactation counseling, screening for domestic violence and yearly wellness visits.

Reuters reports that research suggests the public would be supportive of birth control being added to the list of services.

A survey conducted by Thomson Reuters/NPR in May found that 76.6% of respondents believe that private insurance plans, without the help of government, should cover some or all the costs associated with birth control pills.

The IOM is an independent, nonprofit organization that provides health-policy advice outside of government.


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