Covering contraception

Getting the Affordable Care Act through Congress didn’t end the policymaking process. Indeed, it was just the precursor to the next phase: the adoption of new federal guidelines on health care coverage.

It looks like the Obama administration is going to continue to make major progressive strides in this area, too.

A leading medical advisory panel recommended on Tuesday that all insurers be required to cover contraceptives for women free of charge as one of several preventive services under the new health care law.

Obama administration officials said that they were inclined to accept the panel’s advice and that the new requirements could take effect for many plans at the beginning of 2013. The administration signaled its intentions in January when Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, unveiled a 10-year program to improve the nation’s health. One goal was to “increase the proportion of health insurance plans that cover contraceptive supplies and services.”

Administration officials, who say they hope to act on the recommendations by Aug. 1, are receptive to the idea of removing cost as a barrier to birth control — a longtime goal of advocates for women’s rights and experts on women’s health.

The usual suspects expressed outrage, but at this point, the Obama administration appears likely to follow through on this anyway.

The law already requires insurers to cover “preventive health services” for free, and this new recommendation is part of a process that defines what those services will include. The contraception policy was crafted by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, and quickly embraced by Sebelius.

Also note, the same panel made even broader recommendations, which are also finding favor among Obama administration officials.

In addition to contraceptive services for women, the panel recommended that the government require health plans to cover screening to detect domestic violence; screening for H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS; and counseling and equipment to promote breastfeeding, including the free rental of breast pumps.

The panel also said all insurers should be required to cover screening for gestational diabetes in pregnant women; DNA testing for the human papillomavirus as part of cervical cancer screening; and annual preventive-care visits. Such visits could include prenatal care and preconception care, to make sure women are healthy when they become pregnant.

This is no minor development. As Pema Levy explained, “It’s hard to stress just how big a deal these changes will be. Advocates have been fighting for universal contraceptive access for decades, and in a year when access to preventative care has been severely rolled back, it’s a rare and important win for women.”

And without the Affordable Care Act, this wouldn’t even be a possibility.