Free birth control coming soon to Mass.

Many women in Massachusetts will soon have access to free birth control — without any co-pay, cost-sharing, or deductible — thanks to new federal guidelines announced today that will take effect for any new plans issued after Aug. 1, 2012. The regulation, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, mandates specific services that must be offered for free including domestic violence screening, an annual well visit, and breast pumps for nursing mothers.

It expands the list of free preventive services currently offered in the health law such as mammograms, Pap smears, colonoscopies, and routine vaccinations.

“Each year, more than half of women avoid or delay preventive care because of the cost,’’ said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of US Health & Human Services in a Monday afternoon press conference. She added that the new guidelines would ensure that “no woman in America has to choose between paying a grocery bill and paying a copay for preventive care that could save her life.’’


Currently in Massachusetts, insurers that provide coverage for prescription medications must also provide the same level of coverage for birth control pills. The new federal guidelines, however, will mandate that all new health plans in every state must provide free coverage for prescription contraceptives, including plan B or the morning-after pill.

Premiums are expected to rise with the new offerings, but HHS officials said they haven’t calculated the exact amount of the increase.

The Department decided to adopt all of the recommendations issued last month by a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine. These include free screenings for sexually-transmitted infections, gestational diabetes in pregnant women, and the cervical-cancer causing human papillomavirus in women ages 30 years and older. In addition to free contraception, women will be entitled to an annual well visit at no cost to discuss various birth control options, general health issues, or preconception counseling.

New mothers who choose to breast feed will be offered free lactation counseling and equipment — like breast pumps — to help them continue breast-feeding if they return to work. Free screening and counseling for domestic violence will also be provided to all women annually.

“For the most part, these services are already being covered by insurance companies in the state,’’ said Nancy Schwartz, director of the bureau of managed care at the Mass. Division of Insurance. But women usually need to foot some of the bill in the form of co-pays or deductibles. And breast-feeding services aren’t in the state mandate.


“I would expect insurers only cover the cost of breast pumps in certain medical circumstances,’’ Schwartz added, “and it’s probably subject to cost sharing.’’

Many women, however, may find that their plans won’t be offering the free services — at least at first. Any insurance plan that doesn’t make substantial changes to its coverage, premium, or deductible over the next year can quality as an “old’’ plan and gain an exemption from the new guidelines.

The federal government has also allowed exemptions for contraceptive service coverage for group health plans sponsored by certain religious employers.

“Overall, we’re projecting that 88 million Americans will be in new plans that offer these free services by 2013,’’ said Howard Koh, assistant secretary of Health & Human Services.


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