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Editorial: Benefits outweigh birth control costs

  • July 31, 2011 - 7:06 PM

An influential medical panel has recommended a wise but controversial use of the nation's limited health care dollars: making birth control available without a health insurance copay.

The recent nonbinding proposal by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a prestigious nonpartisan scientific body, makes sense in an era when deficit reduction is a top priority and soaring health care costs are a reality.

Federal officials are mulling the IOM recommendation, which would classify birth control as preventive care, and are expected to rule on it next month.

Republicans' targeting of Planned Parenthood has already crippled a key women's health program that provided access to low-cost birth control in rural areas.

Cuts or spending caps are likely for Medicaid, a program that pays for nursing home care but also covers poor women's and children's health care. Welfare programs are likely face the budget ax, too.

If these programs must shrink, then the nation also needs a compassionate, responsible policy like that recommended by the IOM.

Cuts to programs for kids must be countered by investments to reduce the stunning number of unplanned pregnancies in the United States. Otherwise, policymakers are recklessly flinging open the childhood poverty floodgates.

About one in two American pregnancies are unplanned, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies. About two-thirds are unwanted.

Studies show even small cost-sharing requirements reduce the use of preventive care, especially among those with lower incomes. Covering birth control without a copay would eliminate that hurdle and help more women and their partners delay childbearing until they're financially and emotionally ready to be parents.

It also would help reduce the number of families needing food stamps and other assistance, and play a crucial role in controlling health care costs.

Women with unplanned pregnancies are less likely to seek prenatal care and more likely to engage in behaviors such as smoking and drinking that put their baby's health at risk.

These children are then at risk for serious and costly complications, such as premature birth. The annual hospital bill for premature and low-birth-weight babies comes to about $5.8 billion a year.

Anti-abortion activists also should recognize that women with unplanned pregnancies are those most likely to seek abortions. Yet there's strident opposition to the IOM recommendation from so-called "prolife" organizations.

Catholic bishops and other social conservative organizations oppose the policy on the grounds that pregnancy isn't an illness, therefore drugs to prevent it needn't be covered.

The Family Research Council has said that the recommendation could lead to mandated abortion coverage, though the IOM did not recommend coverage for the drug RU-486, which is used to induce abortions.

These organizations' concerns are more rooted in religious objections to birth control than reality.

The IOM recommendation did not include a cost-benefit analysis of this policy, but other research suggests that every $1 spent on public family planning services yields more than $4 in savings.

Upfront costs are certainly outweighed by the societal benefits and long-term savings of ensuring that healthy kids are born to families ready to take responsibility for them.

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