Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Prescription birth control methods should be added to the list of preventive health services that all health insurers would be required to offer under last year's health law. That's the recommendation today from an independent panel of health experts.

The law itself specified a long list of preventive services to be offered at no cost to patients. But it left the decision about additional women's health services up to the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sibelius. She in turn asked for the study that was released today.

And joining me to discuss what this might mean is NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. She's here in the studio. So who made these recommendations?

JULIE ROVNER: They came from the Institute of Medicine. That's an independent, highly-respected group of experts that federal officials often turn to for unbiased advice on difficult medical issues.

NORRIS: And what exactly was this panel looking at? More than just birth control, I imagine.

ROVNER: Yes. Last year's health law included an amendment added by Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski been ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to look at not just existing preventive health services for women that were already on the list - approved by the U.S. Preventive Health Services Task Force. Those were things like mammograms and pap smears, but other services that weren't always covered.

In turn, the secretary asked the IOM to look at what scientific evidence there was to support adding other preventive services, including birth control, to the list of things that should be covered by health insurance.

NORRIS: So we know what the panel recommended including birth control and the list of preventive services that insurance plans will have to cover. What else was on that list?

ROVNER: Well, there were a total of eight recommendations, ranging from screening pregnant women for diabetes, to counseling and screening for potential cases of domestic violence, to more coverage for supplies related to breast-feeding.

NORRIS: But clearly, this one recommendation over birth control is the one that's getting the most attention and attracting the most controversy.

ROVNER: Absolutely. For one thing, it affects just about every woman. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that 98 percent of sexually active U.S. women will have used birth control at some point during their reproductive years. And cost is often a factor in women failing to use it regularly, which is why half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. So, getting it for almost nothing - or nothing, actually in this case - is a big deal.

Beyond that, it gets caught up in the politics of religion and abortion. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops came out strongly against adding contraception to the list of covered preventive services. It said pregnancy is not a disease.

I might add, parenthetically, that most Catholic women in the U.S. use contraception. And the panel disagreed with the bishops anyway - it pointed to medical evidence that shows that spacing pregnancies results in significant health benefits for moms and for babies.

NORRIS: Only got a couple of more seconds. What happens now? These are recommendations.

ROVNER: These are recommendations. The secretary now gets to decide whether to accept them or not.

NORRIS: Thank you. That's NPR's Julie Rovner.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.