Access to contraception is good health policy

With all eyes on the Supreme Court this week, birth control and its coverage as a preventive benefit for women without a co-pay will once again take center stage in the national conversation. At the heart of this renewed interest is whether the Supreme Court will "grant cert," deeming at least one of three pending contraceptive coverage cases sufficiently important for deliberation and ruling.

Now that the Court has chosen to review two cases, the justices will grapple with the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) provision requiring corporation-sponsored health insurance coverage to include birth control. A central question will be whether the requirement violates that corporation's constitutional religious liberty, and if so, is there a sufficient compelling state interest, such as the well-proven public health benefit of birth control, that should supersede a corporate liberty. While legal and constitutional experts marshal on either side of the debate, the historic achievement of this provision - codifying contraception as routine preventive care and affording millions of women access to birth control without a co-pay - should not be lost in the debate. This may well be the most significant advance for women's health in a generation.

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The facts are simple: once the ACA's goals are fulfilled, the majority of American women will be free from cost barriers to birth control. Following the Institute of Medicine’s guidance, an entire generation of women will be able to consider a wide range of contraceptive medications and devices when planning for a family as part of their health routine, like seeking an annual physical, rather than as an "extra" or "upgrade" only for those fortunate enough to afford it.

As a former health center CEO and as the current CEO of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, the national trade association that represents the publicly funded family planning network, I know firsthand the importance of giving patients affordable access to the information, services, prescription drugs, and devices that they think are best for them.

The need for family planning services and supplies without cost barriers is undeniable. The evidence indisputably shows there are significant health and economic benefits that come with consistent contraceptive use. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, "the ability to time and space children reduces fetal, infant, and maternal mortality and morbidity by preventing unintended and high-risk pregnancies." Studies have also shown that women who have access to contraceptive services are more likely to get tested and treated for sexually transmitted diseases and take other preventive health measures. Additionally, women who can plan their families will have a better chance to focus on economic, educational, and social opportunities, and that benefits all of us.

The majority of Americans have health insurance through their jobs. The Labor Department reported in 2010 that people aged 18-44 could have 11 or more jobs in a lifetime, and most people don't have the luxury of refusing an offer of employment because of restrictions in benefits. Contraception is good for public health, and good for the women and men who depend upon it - now that we've knocked down the barrier that cost has been to many women in choosing the best method for them, the Supreme Court should not erect another. Seven in ten Americans believe that insurance companies should be required to cover the cost of birth control. They get it. Now, the Court should stand with the 99 percent of women who have used contraception, the more than 27 million women already benefiting from the provision, and the millions of families that need access to contraceptive services to make responsible decisions for their own health and well-being.

Coleman is president & CEO of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association.

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