Health insurers required to broaden women's health offerings

TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - Public Health Officials are calling it an historic day, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced new requirements for health insurance providers to expand women's preventive services without co-pay.

The new requirements are part of the Affordable Care Act. Under the new plan, insurance providers will have to provide everything from an annual "well-woman" visit to the doctor's office to birth control.

Local public health officials are championing the changes.

"I am absolutely in support of the new Affordable Care Act. I only with is was being enacted sooner," said Barbara Gunning, the Director of Health Services at the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department.

"It's going to reduce cost, and we are going to have healthier women, and babies!" said Gunning.

Despite cheers from public health officials, not everyone agrees with the changes.

"Superimposing a mandate from the federal government to comply with one of those things, violates one of our most fundamental rights," said Ed Sitter, the Executive Director of Foundation for Life, a pro-life educational organization.

"I think that's an individual conscious, as far as the health care provider: having the freedom, of conscious, not to provide those services. No one should be forced to violate their conscious. That's what our freedoms and our liberties of this nation are all about," said Sitter.

Because of an amendment to the prevention requirement, religious institutions that provide health insurance to its employees will have the choice of whether or not to cover contraception services.

Health insurance providers will be required to foot the bill of the changes.  They could raise insurance premiums to offset the cost.

The requirements could begin as soon as August 1, 2012, with most kicking in January 2013.

Copyright 2011 WTOL. All rights reserved.

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Additional women's preventive services that will be covered without cost sharing requirements include:

•Well-woman visits: This would include an annual well-woman preventive care visit for adult women to obtain the recommended preventive services, and additional visits if women and their providers determine they are necessary. These visits will help women and their doctors determine what preventive services are appropriate, and set up a plan to help women get the care they need to be healthy.

•Gestational diabetes screening: This screening is for women 24 to 28 weeks pregnant, and those at high risk of developing gestational diabetes. It will help improve the health of mothers and babies because women who have gestational diabetes have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the future. In addition, the children of women with gestational diabetes are at significantly increased risk of being overweight and insulin-resistant throughout childhood.

•HPV DNA testing: Women who are 30 or older will have access to high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA testing every three years, regardless of pap smear results.  Early screening, detection, and treatment have been shown to help reduce the prevalence of cervical cancer.

•STI counseling, and HIV screening and counseling: Sexually-active women will have access to annual counseling on HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These sessions have been shown to reduce risky behavior in patients, yet only 28% of women aged 18 to 44 years reported that they had discussed STIs with a doctor or nurse. In addition, women are at increased risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. From 1999 to 2003, the CDC reported a 15% increase in AIDS cases among women, and a 1% increase among men.

•Contraception and contraceptive counseling: Women will have access to all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling. These recommendations do not include abortifacient drugs. Most workers in employer-sponsored plans are currently covered for contraceptives. Family planning services are an essential preventive service for women and critical to appropriately spacing and ensuring intended pregnancies, which results in improved maternal health and better birth outcomes.

•Breastfeeding support, supplies, and counseling: Pregnant and postpartum women will have access to comprehensive lactation support and counseling from trained providers, as well as breastfeeding equipment. Breastfeeding is one of the most effective preventive measures mothers can take to protect their children's and their own health. One of the barriers for breastfeeding is the cost of purchasing or renting breast pumps and nursing related supplies.