US contraception could be free under health law
Associated Press | 11/2/2010, 11:04 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Fifty years after the pill, another birth control revolution may be on the horizon: free contraception for women in the United States, thanks to the new health care law.
That could start a shift toward more reliable — and expensive —forms of birth control that are gaining acceptance in other developed countries.
But first, look for a fight over social mores.
A panel of experts advising the government meets in November to begin considering what kind of preventive care for women should be covered at no cost to the patient, as required under President Barack Obama’s overhaul.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Democrat who is author of the women’s health amendment, says the clear intent was to include family planning.
But is birth control preventive medicine?
Conflicting answers frame what could be the next clash over moral values and a health law that passed only after a difficult compromise restricting the use of public money for abortions.
For many medical and public health experts, there’s no debate.
“There is clear and incontrovertible evidence that family planning saves lives and improves health,” said obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. David Grimes, an international family planning expert who teaches medicine at the University of North Carolina. “Contraception rivals immunization in dollars saved for every dollar invested. Spacing out children allows for optimal pregnancies and optimal child rearing. Contraception is a prototype of preventive medicine.”
But U.S. Catholic bishops say pregnancy is a healthy condition, not an illness. In comments filed with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the bishops say they oppose any requirement to cover contraceptives or sterilization as preventive care.
“We don’t consider it to be health care, but a lifestyle choice,” said John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, a Philadelphia think tank whose work reflects church teachings. “We think there are other ways to avoid having children than by ingesting chemicals paid for by health insurance.”
So far, most other religious conservatives have stayed out of the debate, though that could change. Some say they are concerned about any requirement that might include the morning-after pill. The Food and Drug Administration classifies it as birth control; some religious conservatives see it as an abortion drug.
Jeanne Monahan, a health policy expert at the conservative Family Research Council, said her group would oppose any mandate that lacks a conscience exemption for moral and religious reasons. She said there’s “great suspicion” that a major abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, is leading the push for free birth control.
As recently as the 1990s, many health insurance plans didn’t even cover birth control. Protests, court cases, and new state laws led to dramatic changes. Today, almost all plans now cover prescription contraceptives. So does Medicaid, the health care program for low-income people.
The use of birth control is “virtually universal” in the United States, according to a government report this summer from the National Center for Health Statistics. Nearly 93 million prescriptions for contraceptives were dispensed in 2009, according to IMS Health, a market analysis firm. Generic versions of the pill are available at Walmart stores, for example, for $9 a month.