The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, announced on Monday that that the new guidelines will ensure women get preventive health services at no additional cost.
"The Affordable Care Act helps stop health problems before they start," said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a statement. "These historic guidelines are based on science and existing literature and will help ensure women get the preventive health benefits they need."
The Institute of Medicine (IOM), recently recommended that the federal government consider making free birth control available to support women's health.
Last year, the HHS, tasked the IOM to review what preventive services are important to women's health and wellbeing. The IOM were also asked to recommend which of those services should be considered when developing comprehensive guidelines.
The IOM team identified eight services, among them free birth control, which would help fill the gap in the HHS list of services for women's health to include coverage of contraceptives.
The IOM had recommended that "the full range of Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity."
Now that it is approved, the new guideline will require new health insurance plans to cover women's preventive services such as well-woman visits, breastfeeding support, domestic violence screening, and contraception without charging a co-payment, co-insurance or a deductible, the HHS said.
Additionally, women will have access to the full range of recommended preventive services without cost sharing to include:
- Well-woman visits;
- Screening for gestational diabetes;
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA testing for women 30 years and older;
- Sexually-transmitted infection counseling;
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) screening and counseling;
- FDA-approved contraception methods and contraceptive counseling;
- Breastfeeding support, supplies, and counseling; and
- Domestic violence screening and counseling.
The HHS said prior to health reform, too many Americans didn't get the preventive health care they need to stay healthy, avoid or delay the onset of disease, lead productive lives, and reduce health care costs.
Americans used preventive services at about half the recommended rate because of cost, according to HHS.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that back in 2001, about half of the pregnancies in the U.S. were unintended. Such pregnancies are associated with an increased risk of morbidity. Also women with an unintended pregnancy may delay prenatal care, which can affect the infant's health, according to the CDC.
With the availability of free birth control, more women will be able to better space out the time between births.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America said eliminating co-pays for preventive health care will help reduce unintended pregnancies in the nation, and that the U.S. rates rank as one of the highest in the developed world.
The federation also said birth control can protect women against debilitating symptoms of endometriosis and reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.
The federation's president, Cecile Richards, applauded the federal government's efforts to offer women these services, and called the day a "historic victory for women's health and women across the country."
"The decision by HHS is monumental for millions of women who have struggled with the cost of birth control and other essential health-care services such as cervical cancer and HIV screening," she said in a statement.
Co-pays for birth control pills typically range between $15 and $50 per month, according to Planned Parenthood, which said that other methods, such as IUDs, often cost several hundred dollars, even with health insurance.
"There is no doubt that birth control is basic health care for women," said Dr. Vanessa Cullins, vice president for medical affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "Covering birth control without co-pays is one of the most important steps we can take to prevent unintended pregnancy and keep women and children healthy."