WASHINGTON — An independent panel of doctors and health experts recommended this week that health plans cover contraceptives for women without copays, setting the stage for another debate over the effect of the health care overhaul President Barack Obama signed last year.
The new law requires new health plans to cover a basic set of preventive health services without copays or deductibles for patients. The Obama administration asked the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, to review which services should be covered for women.
Among eight recommendations issued Tuesday, the Institute of Medicine panel urged coverage for "the full range of Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity."
Many experts see preventing unwanted pregnancies as critical to women's and babies' health, as women with unwanted pregnancies are less likely to receive prenatal care and more likely to engage in unsafe behaviors such as drinking and smoking.
But some antiabortion groups had objected to expanding coverage for contraception, singling out several emergency contraceptives that can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg.
The Department of Health and Human Services will consider the recommendations as it finalizes regulations outlining which preventive services will have to be covered by new health plans.
The other preventive services for women that the panel recommended be covered without cost sharing include:
• Screening for gestational diabetes
• Human papillomavirus testing, part of cervical cancer screening for women over 30
• Counseling on HIV and sexually transmitted infections
• Lactation counseling and equipment to promote breast-feeding
• Screening and counseling to detect and prevent domestic violence
• Annual preventive care visits
"This report provides a road map for improving the health and well-being of women," said Dr. Linda Rosenstock, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles and head of the panel.
The architects of the health overhaul made prevention a major focus of the new law, amid a growing consensus among physicians and public health experts that more aggressive efforts to prevent disease could restrain growing health care costs.
Thanks to the new law, Medicare has begun offering many preventive services without copays or deductibles.