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July 31. 2012 7:09PM

New insurance requirements on women's health take effect

MANCHESTER —
Eight new health insurance requirements
under the Affordable Care Act covering women's health — from wellness visits to contraception — take effect today and will benefit 230,000 women in New Hampshire, advocates say.

But the rules already face multiple legal challenges from Roman Catholic institutions and others who say the contraceptive mandates violate their religious freedom.

The changes, which eliminate co-payments for wellness examinations, breastfeeding support, supplies and counseling, and screening and counseling for domestic violence will “improve health for women and their children,” Karen Davenport, director of health policy for the National Women's Law Center, said Tuesday.

The Department of Health and Human Services estimates the new benefits will be extended to 467 million women as their new or altered insurance plans take effect over the next year, Davenport said.

Women will have access to all major forms of birth control without any kind of co-pay, said Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy adviser for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

But Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “People are trying to make it an issue of contraception. It's an issue of religious liberty.”

Contraceptive use violates the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which last week celebrated Natural Family Planning Awareness Week.

Last winter, the Obama Administration issued a compromise that let insurance plans pay for contraceptive coverage rather than employers directly paying.

But in May, 43 Roman Catholic institutions filed a dozen lawsuits in federal courts seeking to overturn the requirements for contraceptive coverage.

On Friday, a federal judge in Colorado issued a temporary injunction blocking the government from enforcing the contraceptive rules against family-owned Hercules Industries, a heating and air-conditioning firm.

“The position certainly of the bishops is that this mandate is a violation of religious freedom,” Walsh said. “It's something that is forcing people to act against their conscience, so it's something that we seriously object to.”

The church also objects to the government determining what is and what isn't a religious ministry, she said.

Other women's benefit expansions that begin Wednesday include screening for diabetes during pregnancy, human papillomavirus (HPV) testing, and counseling and screening for human immune-deficiency virus (HIV) and counseling for sexually transmitted infections.

On the floor of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said, “This will make a real and lasting difference for every woman across this country who can be ... screened for HIV, get a flu shot or receive DNA testing for certain cancers at no cost. Finances will no longer stand in their way.

“As governor of New Hampshire, I was proud to sign legislation requiring insurance companies to provide contraception coverage to women with no religious exemptions,” Shaheen said.

“At that time, it was understood by people on both sides of the aisle — of all religious faiths — that requiring contraceptive coverage was about women's health and a basic health care decision,” Shaheen said.

Health plans now must cover all Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling for all women of child-bearing age, with an exemption for group health plans sponsored by certain religious employers, according to Health and Human Services fact sheet. Grandfathered plans in effect before March 2010 also are exempt.

dpaiste@unionleader.com