The US government on Monday announced the sweeping changes that should save US women hundreds of dollars per year by eliminating partial co-pays and deductible limits on eight preventive care services.
Women's advocates hailed the move as a major advance but expressed disappointment over a clause that exempts religious groups, while conservatives blasted the plan for including free access to emergency contraceptives.
"These historic guidelines are based on science and existing literature and will help ensure women get the preventive health benefits they need," said Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the rules, which take effect in August 2012.
The changes are part of President Barack Obama's health care reform initiative, the Affordable Care Act, signed into law last year.
"The end of co-pays for birth control is the biggest victory for women's health in a generation," said Nancy Keenan of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
"It will allow a woman to choose the birth-control method that she and her doctor agree works best for her, whether that's a pill, patch, IUD, or something else."
Among the services to be covered are "FDA-approved contraception methods and contraceptive counseling; breast-feeding support, supplies, and counseling; and domestic violence screening and counseling," HHS said.
Also included are annual office check-ups, or well-woman visits, screening for gestational diabetes, human papillomavirus (HPV) testing for women 30 and older, sexually transmitted infection counseling and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) screening and counseling.
An amendment was added to the rules to allow religious institutions that provide health insurance for their employees to decide "whether or not to cover contraception services," HHS said.
The National Organization for Women joined a host of women's advocacy groups in applauding the changes, but took issue with the religious loophole.
"Forcing insurance companies to cover contraception is one of the most important things you can do for women's health," NOW president Terry O'Neill told AFP.
"The fanatics who want to withhold birth control from women should not be coddled by the secretary of health and human services, so we are deeply disappointed that she would do this."
Catholics for Choice president Jon O'Brien said Obama's administration "has once again sided with the Catholic bishops over the needs of women and their families."
But the conservative Family Research Council's Jeanne Monahan said the religious exemption did not go far enough, describing it as a "fig leaf of conscience protection for certain churches that fulfill very specific criteria."
She also highlighted the group's concerns over coverage of two emergency contraceptive options, which can be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.
"This administration is promoting mandates that will violate the consciences of millions," she said.
The recommendations were made by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in a July 19 report that urged that the health services be covered in order to improve the state of women's health.
Women in the United States tend to face higher costs to maintain their health than men because of a range of reproductive conditions that are unique to them. Often, private health insurance covers only part of the annual costs.
The IOM said that DNA tests for HPV could cut back on cervical cancer rates, and free access to lactation counseling and equipment could boost rates of breastfeeding by new moms, a practice that is considered beneficial to babies' health.
Free access to contraception could also cut back on the rate of unintended pregnancies in the United States, where about half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the IOM said.
The US government said that health plans could save money by "continuing to charge cost-sharing for branded drugs if a generic version is available and is just as effective and safe for the patient to use."
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of American women have used contraception at some point in their lives.
A 2010 study in the journal Contraception said that average out-of-pocket expenses for contraception were about $168 per year, making up 29 percent of a woman's annual self-paid costs for health care.