WASHINGTON -- A highly influential panel of medical experts recommended to the U.S. Department of Health on Tuesday that all health insurance plans be legally required to offer free birth control to patients.
The Obama Administration commissioned the non-partisan Institute of Medicine (IOM) panel to recommend which preventative health services all insurance plans should fully cover under the Affordable Care Act. In addition to covering birth control, the IOM suggested in its report that health insurers pay for HPV testing, contraceptive and lactation counseling, HIV screening and breast-feeding equipment.
"As someone who has worked on women's rights for nearly 30 years, I can say that today's news marks one of the biggest advances for women's health in a generation," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "Currently, nearly one in three women finds it difficult to pay for birth control, and that's why the United States has a far higher unintended-pregnancy rate than other industrialized countries. Making family-planning services available at no cost will help millions of women prevent unintended pregnancy and thereby reduce the need for abortion."
Keenan added she was "confident that the Obama administration will adopt the IOM's science-based recommendation and thus make affordability of contraception a reality for all women."
If the Department of Health and Human Services does adopt the IOM's recommendations, contraceptives could become affordable for women like Lindsay Cox of Lincoln, Neb., who currently can't afford the co-pay on her birth control.
Cox, 23, is a medical student at Nebraska Wesleyan University, and she has no time for a job. Although her parents pay for her BlueCross/BlueShield insurance plan, her birth control costs $40 a month, which is just out of reach on her student budget.
"Luckily my doctor [at the local Planned Parenthood clinic] gives me free samples, otherwise I just wouldn't be able to get it," she told HuffPost in an interview.
Cox said she would have a lot less to worry about if her insurance plan covered birth control.
"Just being able to pick it up regularly and not have to count on samples would be absolutely amazing," she said. "Planned Parenthood is so busy these days that if they're a week off from being able to see you for an appointment, that throws off your cycle and puts you at risk of becoming pregnant," she added.
Access to free or reduced-cost birth control and women's health services has become increasingly difficult for women like Cox as states legislatures across the country have voted to defund Planned Parenthood.
The IOM report notes that almost half of pregnancies in 2001 were unintended. It also notes that women who become unexpectedly pregnant are more likely to receive delayed or no prenatal care and to smoke, consume alcohol, be depressed, and experience domestic violence during pregnancy. Moreover, a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute, a leading reproductive health research and advocacy group, estimates that unintended pregnancies cost U.S. taxpayers $11.1 billion dollars a year.
Anti-abortion rights and anti-contraception groups are calling for the Obama Administration to reject the IOM's recommendations because they believe that some emergency contraceptives function as "abortion pills."
"This is a question of whether the government should mandate every health plan to cover these drugs free of cost," said Jeanne Monahan, director of Family Research Council’s Center for Human Dignity. "Whatever one’s position is on the issues of contraceptives, abortifacients and such, it does not matter whether proponents of such drugs do not care about the effect on human embryos. The point is that many Americans do care, and many religious health plans would care, and that they should not be forced to violate their conscience."