When Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced last week that birth control and other women’s preventive health care services would be covered by health insurance starting in August 2012, it set off a cacophony of right-wing hysterics. They zeroed in on the “radical” concept that contraception is prevention and displayed no concern for the health and welfare of American women.
The idea that birth control could be considered preventive seems to be news to many of these folks. It’s pretty clear to me that preventing unwanted pregnancies would qualify as a “preventive” health care service. But Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa, and no relation to me) got a little frightened by the idea and took to the House floor to warn that if we “apply that preventative medicine universally, what you end up with is, you’ve prevented a generation.” I guess King thinks that if all women knew how to avoid having children, no woman would have one. I find that kind of strange. But, after watching his performance, I have to admit, the idea of birthing another Steve King might be enough to give a lot of women pause.
Then Fox News pundits got into full-throated fulmination. Dana Perino huffed that she might be in favor of providing birth control for women if she “didn’t see a lot of people out there able to buy a new pair of shoes. We have to be able to make some choices here.” So, women, we have to make a choice–bare feet or unwanted children? I guess it’s a step forward that Perino doesn’t want us barefoot and pregnant.
But what’s lost in all this alarmist bluster is that the guidelines are about more than just birth control–they are a dramatic step forward for women’s health. And that’s great news.
In case you haven’t seen the list of preventive health care services covered, in addition to birth control, they are:
- Well woman visits – For women of all ages, these annual exams are often key to preventing long-term medical problems and managing existing conditions.
- Breastfeeding support, supplies, and counseling – Babies who are breastfed are less likely to develop ear infections, diarrhea and respiratory illnesses. Women who breastfeed lower their risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Yet there are significant barriers to breastfeeding, beginning with the lack of information from health care providers, and compounded by the difficulty mothers who work outside the home encounter when they try to breastfeed or express milk at the workplace. Providing new mothers with the support and information they need to successfully breastfeed will contribute to their long-term health and that of their babies.
- Screening for gestational diabetes – Estimated to affect 18 percent of all pregnancies, gestational diabetes can cause birth complications, including infant deaths, and the development of diabetes later in life.
- Sexually-transmitted infection (STI) counseling – 19 million people are believed to be newly infected each year with STIs such as chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, Hepatitis B, HIV/AIDS and human papillomavirus (HPV). These infections affect men and women of all backgrounds and economic levels, but almost half of new infections are among young people ages 15 to 24. Women have more frequent and more serious health problems from STIs than men.
- DNA testing for human papillomavirus (HPV) for women 30 years and older – At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women will get HPV at some point in their lives. Each year, about 12,000 women get cervical cancer in the U.S. which is caused by HPV.
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) screening and counseling – Approximately 50,000 people are newly infected with HIV each year in the U.S. Women account for more than one in four new HIV/AIDS diagnoses and deaths caused by AIDS.
- Domestic violence screening and counseling – One in every four women [PDF] will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Approximately 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner each year. Doctors are uniquely positioned to ask women about abuse in a private setting and offer them information and resources. Part of the well woman visits, this could be instrumental in helping countless women extricate themselves from a violent situation.
- FDA-approved contraception methods and contraceptive counseling – I don’t think I need to explain how important that one is. It’s noteworthy however that this includes any method of a woman’s choice, including sterilization.
Preventive care makes sense. It costs less than treatment, saving money in the long run. It’s also a saner approach to health care that saves lives and improves our health and our quality of life. It’s long past time for women’s health to be a matter of national concern.
At a time when we’re being told that we have to deal with the national debt by “tightening our belts” and sacrificing so that the wealthiest among us don’t have to, isn’t it nice when the government comes up with a policy that helps women and saves money. In this summer of our discontent, disillusionment and disgust with our elected officials, it’s good to have some good news.