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Department of Health and Human Services and Democrats Pitch New Preventive Benefits for Women

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

July 31, 2012 -- The Obama administration and congressional Democrats worked Tuesday to promote new preventive services benefits for women that go into effect on Wednesday, saying an estimated 47 million women with private health insurance will be able to access no-cost birth control pills, breast-feeding support, well-woman visits, and more.

The launch of the benefit for an important demographic came at a key time for President Obama, as the race for the presidency heads into its last 100 days, national political conventions loom and debate over the health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) continues despite an affirmative decision by the Supreme Court.

Certain preventive services already were covered without cost sharing under the law, but a long list of those specific to women begin for members of non-grandfathered health plans with plan years beginning Wednesday and later. The changes in preventive services coverage begin when a new plan year begins.

The birth control benefit in particular has been the subject of intense controversy, and 24 lawsuits have been filed across the country challenging a Health and Human Services rule requiring the coverage for businesses as well as organizations with religious affiliations. Only religious institutions like churches and synagogues are exempt, although there’s a temporary “safe harbor” for religiously affiliated institutions such as colleges and hospitals.

A Colorado judge on Friday issued a preliminary injunction on behalf of a heating and air conditioning business whose owners said the contraception requirement violates their Catholic religious beliefs—though the injunction applies only to that business and not any other organizations.

During a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, flanked by Democrats, said it was a “new day for women’s health.” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who played a key role in pushing for inclusion of women’s services during the debate on the overhaul, declared, “What a happy day.”

Taking a more partisan tone, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey said there is a “maleogarchy” that is “trying to decide what women ought to be doing for themselves and for their families.” Lautenberg, referring to the presumed Republican presidential nominee, said that the “chief honcho of the maleogarchy group, his name is [Mitt] Romney and he’s resolved to repeal health care the first day . . . that he has office. Well, we’re saying, ‘Too bad.’”

Said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut: “We will not retreat, we will not repeal.”

Senators on the floor also tussled over the preventive benefits. After Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada praised them, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he wanted to offer an amendment repealing the health care law to the cybersecurity bill being debated.

“Can you imagine how ridiculous the statement my friend the minority leader just made is?” said Reid. “He’s now telling me he wants to repeal all the things I just talked about—on the cybersecurity bill?”

Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said the first GOP amendment on a pending transportation bill is about family planning, and he asked whether the Senate is trying to match the House’s record in the 30 times it’s tried to repeal the law.

“I guess the answer is no,” said McConnell, though he said he would continue to seek to have his amendment voted on.
Later at a press conference, McConnell again said the Senate should vote on the health care law’s repeal. “Apparently they’re spending the week trying to convince the American people that this is a wonderful bill, that they’re really proud that they did it,” he said. “If they’re proud of it, I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to vote on it. It doesn’t have to slow the Senate down. We’d be willing to enter into a time agreement to have a very, very short debate.”

The HHS guidelines for women’s preventive services to be offered without co-pay, co-insurance or an out-of-pocket charge in non-grandfathered plans were based on recommendations made last year by the Institute of Medicine.

They include breast-feeding support supplies and counseling; screening and counseling for interpersonal and domestic violence; screening for gestational diabetes; DNA testing for high-risk strains of HPV; counseling on sexually transmitted infections, including HIV; and screening for HIV.

According to a report prepared by HHS and based on census data, as well as Kaiser Family Foundation information, 47 million women between the ages of 15 and 64 who are on private, non-grandfathered health insurance plans will be eligible for the free preventive services. Broken down by state, the largest number, 5.3 million, live in California, with large numbers also in other states: 2.4 million in Florida, 2 million in Illinois and 3.4 million in Texas.

Meanwhile, pollsters at the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner said that in research they’ve done for the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, they’ve found that there are 55 million unmarried women in the United States and they are an important electoral group. But Stanley Greenberg said polling finds this group’s support for Obama is lagging compared with 2008, even though unmarried women stand to benefit from the health care law. Greenberg also challenged other polling that’s shown the law is viewed unfavorably by majorities. He said that “the country is split evenly on the law” and Democrats can gain by talking about the benefits of the overhaul.

Emily Ethridge contributed to this report.

Jane Norman can be reached at [email protected].  

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