Insurance companies should provide free birth control, sexually transmitted infection counseling and HIV screening to all women under the new health care law, a new report from the independent Institute of Medicine said Tuesday.
Under the institute’s recommendations, all Food and Drug Administration-approved birth control methods — including the "morning after pill" — and sterilization procedures would be completely covered for women of reproductive ability as preventive health services, with no co-payments or deductibles.
Women would also receive insurance-covered breastfeeding consulting and equipment, gestational diabetes screening, human papillomavirus testing and domestic violence counseling, all at no cost.
In making its recommendations, the report cited the number of unintended pregnancies in the U.S., the risk such pregnancies pose to the mother and baby, and the direct medical costs involved:
Women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to receive delayed or no prenatal care and to smoke, consume alcohol, be depressed, and experience domestic violence during pregnancy. Unintended pregnancy also increases the risk of babies being born preterm or at a low birth weight, both of which raise their chances of health and developmental problems.
The Department of Health and Human Services commissioned the panel to help it determine coverage regulations, but is not required to adopt any of its recommendations. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is reviewing the report and will make a final decision soon, according to a statement.
Sebelius called the report "historic" and "based on science and existing literature."
"Before today, guidelines regarding women's health and preventive care did not exist," Sebelius said.
Both the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Planned Parenthood applauded the panel's recommendations.
"I'm really taken and pleased with the concept of making contraceptive methods available to women in general," said Dr. James Martin Jr., ACOG's president. "It's just a shame that so many pregnancies in this country are unplanned and unwanted."
"Covering birth control without co-pays is one of the most important steps we can take to prevent unintended pregnancy and help keep women and children healthy," said Dr. Vanessa Cullins, vice president for medical affairs at Planned Parenthood in a statement.
At the same time, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops came out in strong opposition to the recommendations. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said there is "an ideology at work" behind the report, because "most Americans surely see that abortion is not healthy or therapeutic for unborn children, and has physical and mental health risks for women."
"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," DiNardo said in a statement.