Women across the country have reason to celebrate tonight. Why? Because on Wednesday, the law that provides American women with access to preventive health services, including birth control, at no cost—no co-pay, no increase in premium, no deductible—goes into effect.
This victory wouldn't have been achieved without the work of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) who originally proposed requiring insurers to provide this coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act, and without the resolve of the Obama administration, which stood firm when opponents attacked the measure—sometimes in vitriolic terms.
But our work isn’t nearly done. Unless American women actively take advantage of these benefits, our efforts will have been in vain. And polls suggest that too many American women don't know about them. That's why we need to spread the word.
So, here's what the law does for women:
• It guarantees them a free annual well-woman visit, and if needed, follow-up visits. That visit will now include a no-cost screening for domestic or intimate partner violence. For sexually-active women, the visit must also include a free annual screening for HIV and counseling for other sexually transmitted infections.
• It entitles women over 30 to a DNA screening for HPV (human pappilomavirus) every three years, regardless of pap smear results. Detecting and treating HPV will reduce these women’s risk of cervical cancer.
• It allows pregnant women to receive a free screening for gestational diabetes, not only ensuring that they receive care during their pregnancy, but reducing their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in later years. They are also entitled to comprehensive support for breastfeeding, including assistance for moms struggling to breastfeed, as well as equipment like breast pumps, which is especially important for new moms returning to work outside the home.
• Finally, perhaps the best known benefit of this policy is that adult women can access contraception at no cost. This includes any FDA-approved form of contraception, including sterilization procedures, but not any form of abortion. To reiterate what we've said from the start: Access to contraception allows women to control the timing of pregnancies, ensuring that mothers and their children are as healthy as possible.
Although the contraception coverage policy is well known, it is also shrouded in misinformation. No woman should hesitate to take advantage of contraception coverage or any of these services because she fears doing so will increase her or anyone else’s taxes. Although other federal programs do, and should, provide funding for contraception and health services for the poorest women in our communities, this regulation has no impact on anyone’s taxes because it is not funded by the government.
But let's not leave out the most important information: how to access these benefits. Women receive these preventive services through their private insurance from their school or employer. They don’t need to sign up for this program or pay any additional fees. But they do need to find out when their next insurance plan year begins, and make sure their plan qualifies. That's because—with the exception of women who access their insurance through certain religiously-affiliated non-profits and schools, who unfortunately must wait another year for contraception coverage—this policy takes effect August 1. But each woman’s insurance plan will implement these benefits with the next new plan year after today. So if a woman’s insurance plan year begins on September 15, she’s eligible for these services beginning September 15.
So tonight, women of America, I hope you’ll celebrate. But don't forget to share the information as well!
Sandra Fluke graduated cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center and has served as president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice. She has endorsed and campaigned for President Obama.