No co-pays for contraceptives? I’ll take it!

(This post is a part of the National Women’s Law Center and Planned Parenthood’s “Birth Control: We’ve Got You Covered” blog carnival today. Visit National Women’s Law Center for more updates on this issue.) 

I really hate navigating the maze of my student health care plan, deciphering its jargon, figuring out what’s covered and not covered and spending hours on the phone with Aetna representatives after I’ve paid more than $1,500 a year of my own hard-earned money for the privilege of being seen by a doctor. So here are some things I’ve learned about my health care plan in the past two years of being a graduate student:

No co-pay: biannual dental check-ups/cleanings, annual eye exams, dermatology visits.

$20 co-pays/fees: annual well-woman exams, prescriptions for oral contraceptives, HIV testing.

Let’s get this straight. Dental hygiene and health, eye exams, well-woman exams, birth control and HIV/AIDS testing are all preventive measures that I should take for the majority of my adult life to make sure that I am healthy and can avoid pregnancy, unless I choose to have children. But not all are equally covered by the majority of health care plans. Under my current plan, I am subject to additional fees and copays for being a woman. I’m paying a penalty for taking care of my female body.

That’s why I’m eagerly following the news on Tuesday that the Institute of Medicine has recommended that contraception, yearly well-woman visits, support for breastfeeding, screening and counseling for domestic violence victims, among others, are essential women’s preventive health services and should be covered at no cost by health insurers. Under the Affordable Care Act, all new health insurance plans are required to cover preventive health care services at no cost to the patient. The Department of Health and Human Services, headed by Kathleen Sebelius, asked the Institute of Medicine to review available evidence and recommend additional preventive health services for women. The Department of Health and Human Services is expected to make a final decision about these recommendations sometime in August.

The Institute of Medicine’s recommendations signal that greater access to basic, essential health care for women is not out of reach and that discriminatory practices by health insurance companies that charge women fees for choosing to control their fertility could be a thing of the past. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women are more likely than men to avoid needed health care, including preventive care, because of cost. Making contraceptives free of charge to insured women will help us access our very human right to decide if or when to be mothers or when to increase the size of our families. Greater access and use of contraceptives to time pregnancies improves our health since we can prevent a range of pregnancy complications like high blood pressure and gestational diabetes.

I count myself lucky and privileged to have been able to afford health insurance when so many of my fellow Americans can’t. Health care is still an expensive privilege, not a right in our so-called “First World,” “developed” nation. (Although I am hopeful that our new health care reform laws will change this). As a girl, I never went without a summer physical, vaccinations, dental check-ups and eyeglasses. As a 20-something, single professional woman, I’ve enrolled in two employer-based health care plans and one student plan on my own. Four months of oral contraceptives + two well-woman exams = $120 in two years. It would have been nice to have used that money for books or gas money for my graduate education.

How many more women will be able to access contraceptives and other preventive health care and lead healthier lives if they don’t have to pay extra for it? What else will they be able to do with a little extra money in their pocket? A lot.

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