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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011 08:41 pm

Good news for women’s health and pocketbooks

U. S. health insurance companies must offer women free birth control and other preventive health care services under Obama administration rules released this week. The rules from the Health and Human Services Department largely follow recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, an independent panel of doctors and health experts. Ending those extra out-of-pocket insurance charges will be good for women’s health and good for women’s pocketbooks.

The ruling also requires insurance companies to end co-pays for breastfeeding supports, including rental of breast pumps, and for annual well woman exams, HIV infection screening and counseling for women experiencing domestic violence. Most of the public attention so far, though, has focused on the ruling about contraception. No wonder, because the vast majority of women in our country have used birth control at some time in their lives.

For young women and their families who are struggling in these tough economic times, a $20 or $30 co-pay can make it difficult to afford to fill a birth control prescription each month. Some contraceptive methods like IUDs, which work better for certain women, require co-pays or deductibles that can run into hundreds of dollars. It’s understandable that women facing financial stress report they use contraception inconsistently and put off family planning office visits to save money.

Without affordable and reliable contraception, however, women face the risk of unintended pregnancy. In fact, half of all pregnancies in this country are now unintended. Medical experts point out that there can be serious health consequences for both women and babies from these “surprise” pregnancies. When a woman isn’t able to space pregnancies, allowing enough time between them, her risk of experiencing maternal health problems increases. This is especially true for women who have health conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease that may be exacerbated by pregnancy, problems that disproportionately affect women of color.

Women whose pregnancies are not planned are less likely to receive timely prenatal care, quit smoking and begin taking adequate folic acid to promote a healthy pregnancy.

When there is an interval of less than a year between births – which can happen when a woman has no family planning — the chances increase for a pre-term birth and a low birth-weight baby who will be at risk of serious complications and even death in the first year of life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cited family planning as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century, precisely because it improved the health of women and their babies.

But affordable contraception does more than protect women’s health. It also protects a family’s economic security, by enabling women to have children when they are able to support them. That’s why the American public strongly supports family planning services – with 84 percent of those polled in June by Lake Research Associates citing contraception as an important preventive health service.

We are pleased the Department of Health and Human Services has adopted the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine to require that new insurance plans remove co-pays and cut out extra charges for family planning and contraceptives. This is a historic step for women’s health and the economic well-being of families across America.

Pearson and Uttley are co-founders of Raising Women’s Voices for the Health Care We Need. Pearson is executive director of the National Women’s Health Network. Uttley is president-elect of the Public Health Association of New York City.
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