Women’s Preventive Services Needed in Health Insurance

Judy Waxman

A panel of independent experts is developing evidence-based preventive health guidelines for women to determine what preventive services will be covered in all new health insurance plans.

Cross-posted from National Women’s Law Center’s site, Womenstake.

The process of implementing the new health care law continued last week as a panel of independent experts meet to begin to develop evidence-based preventive health guidelines for women that will be used to determine what preventive services will be covered in all new health insurance plans and provided with no cost-sharing.

Under a part of the new health care law that went into effect in September, all new insurance plans are required to cover certain preventive measures like mammograms, pap smears, smoking cessation therapy and folic acid and provide them to patients at no cost.  To supplement these new rules, the Institute of Medicine has been tasked with addressing serious gaps in the definition of preventive care for women and ensuring that this landmark protection meets the full range of women’s health needs. This week the Institute of Medicine’s panel of women’s health experts is holding its first meeting to begin the process of making preventive care more accessible and affordable for women.

As a part of this meeting, I testified before the panel and discussed general barriers to care that women face and recommended five services that the panel should be sure to include in their final recommendations to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

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Women seeking affordable health care face significant and unique barriers. Women generally make less than men. With women making on average just 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, women have less money to spend on their health care. It is then not hard to imagine why more women than men have faced economic hardship due to health care needs. Women are also more likely to delay or avoid seeking care, including preventive care, due to cost. Evidence also suggests that even moderate co-pays can cause individuals, especially those with low and moderate incomes, to forgo needed preventive care.

As NWLC has shown, before the Affordable Care Act, the individual insurance market routinely failed women, making access to affordable health care even more challenging. Women obtaining identical plans to men oftentimes pay higher premiums. To add insult to injury, maternity care is rarely included in basic individual plans, and as a result women must purchase a supplemental policy to cover pregnancy. These riders can be prohibitively expensive. Women who obtain coverage through an employer are partially protected from these barriers due to federal and state employment discrimination laws, but cost and coverage challenges continue to exist.

The National Women’s Law Center also proposed five additional services to be included in the final list: 

  • Family Planning Counseling and All FDA- Approved Prescription Contraceptive Drugs and Devices- Nearly all American women use contraceptives during their reproductive years. Family planning counseling and supplies allow women to control the spacing, timing and number of births, which leads to improved health and mortality outcomes for women and their children. The ability to plan a pregnancy can prevent a range of pregnancy related complications that can endanger a woman’s health, and allows women to the take the necessary steps to ensure her own health is adequate to undergo pregnancy and childbirth.

    A wealth of information supports the recommendation that reversible and permanent forms of contraception be covered by health insurance.

    • A consensus study by a panel convened by the IOM in 1995 to address unintended pregnancy recommended that financial barriers to contraception be reduced by “increasing the proportion of all health insurance policies that cover contraceptive services and supplies…with no copayments or other cost-sharing requirements, as for other selected preventive health services.”

    • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named family planning one of the ten most important public health achievements of the 20th century because of its contribution to “the better health of infants, children, and women.”

    • Contraceptive use is one of the cornerstones of Healthy People 2010, the nation’s agenda for promoting health and preventing disease.

    • The National Business Group on Health, a non-profit organization representing large employers’ perspectives on national health policy issues, conducted a comprehensive review of available evidence and recommends a clinical preventive service benefit design that includes all FDA-approved prescription contraceptive methods at no cost-sharing.

    Including family planning counseling and supplies in the final recommendations would also build on key federal protections in place for millions of women. For almost 40 years, Medicaid has covered family planning services and supplies and provided them without co-payments for millions of low-income women.

    Because the only FDA-approved prescription contraceptives available today are for women, and pregnancy is a condition unique to women, the panel has the opportunity to rectify a long-standing inequity for women. Failure to cover contraceptives forces women to bear higher out-of-pocket health costs, totaling approximately $9,000 over her lifetime.  Nearly ten years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued an interpretation of the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination in employment, stating that it is sex discrimination for employer-sponsored health insurance plans to provide coverage of other prescription drugs and preventive services, but fail to provide coverage of contraception.

  • Screening for Intimate Partner Violence- Three women are murdered each day by their husbands or boyfriends, and two million injuries result from domestic violence each year. We should be using every tool at our disposal to identify and help victims of intimate partner violence and we believe routine behavioral assessment for intimate partner violence could help reduce these numbers.

  • Screening for Cervical Cancer- Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death for American women, but screening and early intervention has greatly reduced the number of deaths each year. It has been a several years since the United States Preventive Service Task Force (USPSTF) has updated its recommendations. We urge the panel to review relevant evidence to ensure women are receiving the appropriate care.

  • Breast Pump Equipment- Studies have shown that breastfeeding provides important long-term health benefits for mothers. Lactation supplies, including breast pumps, are critical for mothers to sustain breastfeeding and receive the preventive health benefits that lactation affords.

  • Physician-Recommended Preventive Services- Many of the services that are provided in a routine preventive visit are included among USPSTF recommendations, yet the Task Force does not recommend the actual visit itself, and women are often charged co-payments at the time of service. We urge the panel to consider covering all well-woman and preconception care visits.  When a doctor recommends a preventive health visit, a woman’s decision about whether to comply should not turn on her ability to afford the care.

A number of organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, decried the possibility that contraception may be included among the preventive health services covered, but this extreme position is without merit and harmful to women. Sound science should trump ideology, and we’re confident that the Institute of Medicine panelists will not let the religious views of some interfere with their expert review of the scientific and medical evidence and the needs of American women. 

The IOM is expected to submit its final recommendations to HHS in June 2011.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

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