WASHINGTON -- Millions of women stand to gain free access to an array of birth control methods, thanks to a recommendation issued Tuesday by health experts advising the government.
An Institute of Medicine panel recommended that the government require health insurance companies to cover birth control as preventive care, without co-payments. Contraception -- along with such care as diabetes tests during pregnancy and screening for the virus that causes cervical cancer -- was one of eight recommended preventive services for women.
"Unintended pregnancies carry health consequences for the mother -- psychological, emotional and physical -- and also consequences for the newborn," said Dr. Linda Rosenstock, panel chairwoman and dean of public health at the University of California, Los Angeles.
A half-century after the introduction of the birth control pill, the panel's recommendations may help to usher in another revolution. Medical experts say easier access could start a shift to more-reliable forms of long-acting birth control, such as implants or IUDs. Emergency contraception would also be covered.
All but one member of the 16-person panel supported the final recommendations.
President Barack Obama's healthcare law already requires most health plans to provide standard preventive care for people of both sexes at no additional charge to patients. Women's health recommendations were considered new and politically sensitive territory, so the nonpartisan institute was asked to examine the issue.
Nonetheless, a fight over social mores is brewing. Catholic bishops and other religious and social conservatives say that pregnancy is a healthy condition and that the government should not require insurance coverage of drugs and other methods that prevent it. (Most health plans already cover contraception.)
A final decision on the recommendations by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is expected around Aug. 1.