* New guidelines on preventive services for women
* Adopt IOM's recommendations released in July
* Includes amendment allowing religious groups to opt out
(Adds details throughout)
By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON, Aug 1 U.S. health insurance
companies must fully cover women's birth control and other
preventive health care services under Obama administration
rules released on Monday.
The mandate from the Health and Human Services Department
represents a landmark decision in a decades-long debate on
women's health issues that has pitted family planning groups
against conservative organizations.
"Under the law, we're making it illegal to charge women
more just because of their gender," HHS Secretary Kathleen
Sebelius said on Monday.
The guidelines, a product of last year's healthcare
overhaul, go into effect on Monday, and require insurers to do
away with co-payments on coverage of preventive care services
for women in all new plans beginning in August 2012.
The rules largely follow recommendations from a scientific
advisory group released last month.
The U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) said in a July report
that all government-approved birth control methods -- including
the "morning-after pill," taken shortly after sexual
intercourse to stop a pregnancy -- should be included in the
U.S. list of preventive health services. [ID:nN1E76I0HG]
The newly required coverage also includes free screenings
for gestational diabetes, testing for human papillomavirus in
women over 30, counseling for HIV and sexually transmitted
infections, and screening for domestic violence.
"Today is a historic victory for women's health and women
across the country," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned
Parenthood Federation of America. "The decision by HHS is
monumental for millions of women."
Conservative groups balked at the decision to force private
insurers to fully cover birth control. "HHS says the intent of
its 'preventive services' mandate is to help 'stop health
problems before they start,'" said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo,
chairman of the pro-life activities committee at the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops. "But pregnancy is not a
disease, and children are not a 'health problem.'"
In a nod to conservative groups, the HHS included an
amendment to its final rules that would allow religious
employees and institutions to choose whether to cover
contraception services in their insurance.
For at least 50 years, religious objections to birth
control have made the topic a hot-button social issue in the
In 1965, a Supreme Court ruling ended an era when states
could ban the use of contraceptives, arguing that such power
violated "the right to marital privacy." In 1972, another case
upheld unmarried couples' rights to the use of contraceptives.
Monday's rules mark another turn in the debate and could
help put birth control in financial reach for some women.
Many of the bigger employers must include birth control
among the services covered by their insurance, but require
women to pay part of the price. The HHS guidelines would get
rid of the co-pay.
"(Contraception) is not controversial in the lives of
women... To an extent, this is not really new, but it's filling
in the gaps," said Judy Waxman, vice president for health and
reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center, a
non-profit pro-choice education center.
There is some question about how much impact the rule will
have on coverage of the "morning-after pill."
The HHS rule requires coverage of contraceptives "as
prescribed." Two most commonly used government-approved
emergency contraceptives -- "Plan B" from Teva Pharmaceuticals
(TEVA.TA) and "Next Choice" from Watson Pharmaceuticals WPI.N
-- are sold over the counter. The only prescription emergency
pill is Watson's "ella," approved in 2010.
"It's regulatory sleight of hand on the part of HHS," said
Dr. Michele Curtis, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the
University of Texas-Houston Medical School.
Still, some women said the government's mandate for full
coverage of birth control is a welcome step.
"I'm not on it now, but I took it in my twenties, and it
cost a small fortune back then," said 47-year-old Carole
Murphy, who was shopping at a local CVS on Monday. "It's good
to have the option if you need it."
To read the HHS guidelines, visit
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh, Anna Yukhananov and Andrew
Seaman. Editing by Maureen Bavdek and Robert MacMillan)