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Prevention at the Heart of Keeping Women Healthy

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Everyone wants their family to be healthy. And a key component of this is ensuring that mothers, daughters, and sisters have access to the preventive services they need. When it comes to health, women are often the sole decision maker for their families and the trusted source in circles of friends -- and they are also key consumers of health care.

Women have unique healthcare needs across their life span and have high rates of chronic disease, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Yet while women are more likely to need preventive health care services, they often have less ability to pay. Too often, the combination of women's lower incomes and out-of-pocket health costs mean that women forgo necessary preventive services. But removing cost sharing requirements improves women's access to important preventive services. In fact, one study found that the rate of women getting a mammogram went up as much as 9 percent when cost sharing was removed.

The Affordable Care Act helps make prevention affordable and accessible for all Americans by requiring new health plans to cover recommended preventive services and by eliminating cost sharing, such as deductibles, copayments or co-insurance, for many preventive services. The law also requires insurance companies to cover additional preventive health benefits for women.

For the first time ever, HHS is adopting a new comprehensive set of guidelines for women's preventive services that builds on and fills the gaps in existing preventive services recommendations for women's health. Together, these guidelines will help ensure that women stay healthy at every stage of life.

The new guidelines include a number of key services for women. For adult women of all ages, well-woman visits will now be covered without cost-sharing. Similar to well-baby visits and the annual Medicare wellness visit, this annual well-woman preventive care visit will help women and their doctors determine what preventive services are appropriate and set up a plan to help women get the care they need to be healthy.

Women will have access to life-saving screenings. For example, women will have access to screening and counseling for interpersonal and domestic violence. An estimated 25 percent of women in the U.S. report being targets of intimate partner violence during their lifetimes. Screening is effective in the early detection and effectiveness of interventions to increase the safety of abused women.

Sexually-active women will have access to annual counseling on sexually transmitted infections and HIV. Only 28 percent of women aged 18 to 44 years reported that they had discussed STIs with a doctor or nurse yet screening services have been shown to reduce risky behavior. Women who are 30 years old or older will have access to high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA testing every three years, regardless of pap smear results. Early screening, detection and treatment have been shown to help reduce the prevalence of cervical cancer.

Women will also have access to all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling. Though most workers in employer-sponsored plans are currently covered for contraceptives, these new guidelines offer more women the opportunity to access these important services. When half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, we know family planning services are an essential preventive service for women. These services are critical to appropriately spacing and ensuring intended pregnancies which results in improved maternal health and better birth outcomes.

For mothers-to-be, gestational diabetes screening will now be covered at no out of pocket expense. It will help improve the health of mothers and babies because women who have gestational diabetes have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the future. Pregnant and postpartum women will have access to comprehensive lactation support and counseling from trained providers, as well as breastfeeding equipment. One of the barriers for breastfeeding is the cost of purchasing or renting breast pumps and nursing related supplies, and now, women will have coverage for this important benefit. As breastfeeding is one of the most effective preventive measures mothers can take to protect their health and the health of their children, access to this equipment without cost can help improve maternal and child health.

By eliminating barriers like co-pays, these guidelines will help improve access to affordable, quality health care for all women. New private health plans must cover the guidelines on women's preventive services with no cost sharing in plan years starting on or after July 29, 2012. Today, we are moving one step closer to knocking down the barriers to the services that keep American women healthy.