August 2012 is a good month for women.
Earlier this month, provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) went into effect that will guarantee millions of women access to critical preventive health services including: well-woman visits; HIV, Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) and gestational diabetes screenings; comprehensive breastfeeding support; domestic violence counseling; and all FDA-approved contraceptive methods and sterilization services. Individual and group health insurance plans must cover these evidence-based services in plan or policy years beginning on or after August 1 2012 unless they are “grandfathered” or substantially unchanged since March 23, 2010. (Check out this Q&A for more information about grandfathered plans.)
Aside from their monthly premiums, women won’t have to pay any out of pocket costs for these services. Plans subject to these coverage requirements must provide these services without cost sharing -- that means no copay, no deductible and no co-insurance.
This cost-sharing relief is particularly important for women, who are significantly more likely than men to forgo or postpone health care or treatment because of cost. More than a quarter of all women, many of whom are struggling financially, recently reported that they have tried to economize by using birth control inconsistently -- skipping days on the pill, putting off visits to the doctor to get their prescriptions refilled or taking a month "off." When women have affordable access to contraceptive and other preventive health care, gender-based health disparities are reduced, pregnancies are healthier and safer, birth outcomes are better and whole communities stand to benefit.
The new requirements supplement other ACA preventive health provisions that went into effect in 2010. Those rules include even more services that are critical for women, such as, breast cancer mammography, tobacco cessation and osteoporosis and cervical cancer screening. Taken together, these requirements have the potential to finally make access to affordable, comprehensive preventive health care a reality for an estimated 47 million insured women.
While these preventive services requirements are an important step forward, not all women will benefit from their protections. For example, the law permits some religious employers to refuse to include the required contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans, and additional accommodations allow a broader category of non-profit religiously-affiliated organizations and schools to delay this important coverage in their employee and student health plans for another year. These exceptions are bad for women and bad for public health: access to evidence-based health care shouldn’t depend on where a person works or goes to school.
So on August 1, health advocates paused to celebrate all that the ACA is doing to improve women’s health. Now advocates are back to work, trying to ensure that all women have access to this important care.
For answers to common questions about the new women’s preventive services requirements, check out this new Q&A .
This blog post was prepared by Erin Armstrong, J.D., staff attorney at the National Health Law Program.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.