Officials have said that birth control pills, breastfeeding equipment and testing for human papillomaviruses will be covered under US health plans at no cost beginning next year.
Acting on the recommendations of an expert panel which advised the changes to health plans in order to improve women's health, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the new rules would take effect in August 2012.
Advertisement"These historic guidelines are based on science and existing literature and will help ensure women get the preventive health benefits they need," said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The changes are part of the President Barack Obama's health care reform initiative, the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law last year.
Eight services will now be covered under health insurance plans without women having to pay out of pocket through partial co-pays or by meeting a deductible limit first.
Among them are "FDA-approved contraception methods and contraceptive counseling; breastfeeding support, supplies, and counseling; and domestic violence screening and counseling," HHS said.
Also included are annual office check-ups, or well-woman visits, screening for gestational diabetes, HPV testing for women 30 and older, sexually transmitted infection counseling and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) screening and counseling.
An amendment was added to the rules to allow religious institutions that provide health insurance for their employees to decide "whether or not to cover contraception services," HHS said.
The recommendations were made by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in a July 19 report that urged that the health services be covered in order to improve the state of women's health.
Women in the United States tend to face higher costs to maintain their health than men because of a range of reproductive conditions that are unique to them. Often, private health insurance covers only part of the annual costs.
The IOM said that DNA tests for HPV could cut back on cervical cancer rates, and free access to lactation counseling and equipment could boost rates of breastfeeding by new moms, a practice that is considered beneficial to babies' health.
Free access to contraception could also cut back on the rate of unintended pregnancies in the United States, where about half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the IOM said.
The US government said that health plans could save money by "continuing to charge cost-sharing for branded drugs if a generic version is available and is just as effective and safe for the patient to use."
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