Will Insurers Have To Offer Free Birth Control?

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This is a handout photo of a pack of Seasonale birth control pills. Seasonal is an extended cycle oral contraceptive.

The White House is reportedly looking into whether under the Affordable Health Care Act, it can require insurance companies to offer free contraceptives and family planning as a preventive service. Experts say 50 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended.

When Congress passed the Affordable Health Care Act last year, it included a provision requiring insurance companies to cover women's "preventive health services" — but left the details for another time.

That time is now.

And, according to a report in The New York Times, the Obama administration is looking into whether, under the new law, it could compel insurance companies to offer free contraceptives and family planning as a preventive service.

Though pushback from some conservatives and from Catholic organizations has already begun, the effort has gotten strong backing from women's health experts.

"It should be a no-brainer to provide contraceptive coverage to women at a low or minimum cost-sharing," says Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University's Health Policy Institute.

"When 50 percent of pregnancies are unintended, we'd be crazy to keep up those barriers to contraceptives," she said.

Fifty percent?

Yes, said Dr. Hal C. Lawrence III, of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in testimony last month before the Institute of Medicine Committee on Preventive Services for Women. The administration has enlisted the Institute to recommend a menu of preventative services for women.

Lawrence characterized the United States' unintended pregnancy rate as the highest in the developed world. "Approximately half of all pregnancies are unintended," he said.

Such pregnancies, he argued, can result in "tremendous individual and societal consequences."

His organization's recommendation on contraceptives: A full array of drugs and devices, including those for permanent contraception, must be covered without cost-sharing, he said.

"It is equally essential that women have access to counseling that supports them in choosing a contraceptive method that is best for them and in using that method effectively," Lawrence added.

The United States Conference on Catholic Bishops, which has also been at the forefront of efforts to block taxpayer funding of abortion, told The Times that it opposed mandating contraceptive coverage because pregnancy "is not a disease to be prevented."

And they expressed particular concern about emergency contraceptives that serve to prevent or stop a pregnancy after sexual intercourse.

Donna Crane, policy director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, asserts that the Bishops' position is out of step with the views of most Americans.

"We think the American public vastly supports universal contraception, and, in fact, it is almost universally used in this country," She said. "Contraceptive coverage is a priority issue for us."

Recommendations from the administration are not expected for several months.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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