A box of Tri-Cyclen Lo birth control medication for women is seen in a pharmacy.
U.S. health insurance companies must fully cover women's birth control and other preventive health care services under Obama administration rules released on Monday.
The mandate from the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) represents a landmark decision in a decades-long debate on women's health issues that has pitted family planning groups against conservative organizations.
"Under the law, we're making it illegal to charge women more just because of their gender," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Monday.
The guidelines, a product of last year's healthcare overhaul, go into effect on Monday, and require insurers to do away with co-payments on coverage of preventive care services for women in all new plans beginning in August 2012.
The rules largely follow recommendations from a scientific advisory group released last month.
The U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) said in a July report that all government-approved birth control methods -- including the "morning-after pill," taken shortly after sexual intercourse to stop a pregnancy -- should be included in the U.S. list of preventive health services.
The newly required coverage also includes free screenings for gestational diabetes, testing for human papillomavirus in women over 30, counseling for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and screening for domestic violence.
"Today is a historic victory for women's health and women across the country," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "The decision by HHS is monumental for millions of women."
Conservative groups balked at the decision to force private insurers to fully cover birth control. "HHS says the intent of its 'preventive services' mandate is to help 'stop health problems before they start,'" said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the pro-life activities committee at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "But pregnancy is not a disease, and children are not a 'health problem.'"
In a nod to conservative groups, the HHS included an amendment to its final rules that would allow religious employees and institutions to choose whether to cover contraception services in their insurance.
United States - Private system Private sector funded, with more than half from private sources. Private health insurance available through employer, government or private schemes.