06/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Health Care Reform Is the Law of the Land: But What's in It for Women?

What a difference a couple weeks make. Since the historic health care bill became law, the conversation has slowly begun to change. Sure, some people, especially my friends, are still focused on the politics of health care, and some folks, not my friends, are mostly trying to stop reform at the state level. But many people I talk to in my travels are asking a more practical question: How does the health care law affect women?

While the 2,000-plus page bill is now becoming the focus of new regulations and guidelines, the answer to the question about women is simple. Despite unacceptable and onerous restrictions on private health insurance coverage for abortion, this new law represents the greatest single legislative advance for women's health care since Medicare and Medicaid were signed into law nearly 45 years ago. The new law increases access, broadens coverage, and eases the burden on women, who still earn less than men but have higher health costs.

Let's look at a few specifics of how the law will make a huge difference in women's lives:

Basic reproductive health care when you need it: Right now, more than 17 million women are in need of family planning but can't afford it. This law addresses that need by extending either private health insurance or Medicaid coverage to millions of women who currently don't have it. New rules will dramatically increase access to reproductive health services, including family planning and contraception. The law also ensures that millions of women with modest incomes will benefit from free or very low -cost, lifesaving screenings for breast and cervical cancer.

No more unfair billing: Right now, women are routinely charged higher premiums than men. Well, insurance companies won't be able to do that anymore. This law prohibits insurers from charging women more than they charge men for a comprehensive private health insurance plan.

No more "pre-existing" conditions: Right now, women are commonly denied private health insurance because of "pre-existing" conditions such as breast cancer and pregnancy. This new law is making that go away, too. It specifically forbids insurers from denying coverage because of "pre-existing" conditions.

Health insurance for millions who need it: Between 2014 and 2019, 32 million Americans, many of them women with modest incomes, will go from being uninsured to insured. The new health insurance will cover regular exams and preventive care from community health centers, including Planned Parenthood health centers.

But the abortion provision is not good: While we won a huge victory by keeping the Stupak abortion ban out of the bill, which would have resulted in a near total ban of private health insurance coverage for abortion, we ended up instead with other severe restrictions on private health insurance coverage for abortion. The restrictions must be overturned before they go into effect in 2014.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that this law is a momentous step in the right direction for American women and their families. But we must do more to fix its abortion provisions, while we make sure the law is implemented to women's benefit. And high on our list must be electing even more pro-choice members of the Senate and House. Until we do so, the law won't be what it should when it comes to abortion and health care coverage. For America's women, we must do more, we can do more, and we will do more.

Cecile Richards is the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.