BY MONIFA THOMAS
Chicago Sun-Times Staff Reporter
CHICAGO--As part of federal health-care reform, private insurers will soon be barred from charging co-pays or deductibles for certain cancer screenings, blood pressure exams, routine vaccinations and a range of other preventive health services, under new rules announced Wednesday by the Obama administration.
The rules take effect for new health plans that begin on or after Sept. 23.
An estimated 41 million people would benefit from the new policy this year and a total of 88 million would by 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But the rules wouldn't apply to roughly 98 million people whose group health plans were "grandfathered" in under the Affordable Care Act.
To remain exempt from the law, grandfathered plans can't significantly reduce benefits or increase employee premium contributions by more than 5 percentage points.
Under the new rules, co-pays and other forms of cost-sharing would still be allowed for out-of-network care and the treatment of conditions identified by screening.
By removing cost as a barrier to getting routine health exams and vaccinations, the new regulations aim to reduce the number of people who develop preventable chronic diseases, which account for seven out of 10 deaths in the United States, White House officials said.
"Services like these will go a long way in preventing chronic illness," first lady Michelle Obama said Wednesday at a press briefing to announce the new rules.
The announcement comes at a time when the White House is trying to sell the early consumer benefits of the Affordable Care Act, amid calls from Republican Senate nominee Mark Kirk and others to repeal it.
Since President Obama signed the health-care law March 23, his administration has been making a concentrated effort to highlight the upfront benefits, with an eye toward the November elections. The measure passed with no GOP votes in the House and Senate. Kirk said Monday he will sign a GOP petition to try to repeal the health overhaul, putting him at odds with Democratic contender Alexi Giannoulias, who backs it.
On Wednesday, Michelle Obama headlined an event at George Washington University designed to draw attention to the preventive care screenings that will be available -- without insurance co-payments -- starting Sept. 23. She said the new law keeps "costs down and holds insurance companies accountable."
Under the rules, four types of preventive services will be covered at no charge to the consumer:
• Screenings that are strongly recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, including breast and colon cancer tests; screening of pregnant women for vitamin deficiencies; smoking cessation services, and tests for diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
• Routine vaccinations, including childhood immunizations and tetanus booster shots for adults.
• Well-child visits, vision and hearing tests for kids and weight counseling.
• Preventive care for women, which will be specified in guidelines scheduled to be released next year.
The government estimates that the changes may increase insurance premiums by 1.5 percent on average, though people who have little or no coverage for preventive health services now would likely benefit from the reduction in out-of-pocket costs.
A full list of the covered services is available at www.healthcare.gov/law/about/provisions/services/index. html.
Contributing: Lynn Sweet