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Health Highlights: Free birth control, high deductibles, quit smoking for cash

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This week's top consumer health stories demonstrate, once again, that money shapes a lot of our health care decisions. Read on!

Free contraceptives must be free, Obama administration tells insurers

This week, the Obama administration clarified the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate: Health plans must offer at least one option for every type of prescription birth control free of charge to consumers, Phil Galewitz reports for NPR.

The ruling follow reports that many insurers were not providing no-cost birth control for all prescription methods. The law requires that preventative services - including birth control and well-woman visits - be covered without out-of-pocket expenses, like copays or deductibles.

While insurers must offer at least one version of all 18 FDA approved contraceptives for free, the Department of Health and Human Services says plans may still charge fees to encourage individuals to use a particular brand or generic.

High deductibles force people to skip care

If you've felt as if your high deductible was preventing you from getting needed health care, you're not alone. I write about a new report finding that among Americans with private insurance, one in four didn't get needed care last year because they couldn't afford it.

The report from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit consumer group Families USA argues that skipping care is hardly a cost-saving measure for consumers. Often times, it can result in more serious problems and higher costs down the road, the report says.

Families USA calls on insurers and policymakers to develop more affordable plans that cover certain types of tests and treatments before the deductible is met.

Smokers more likely to quit if their own cash is on the line

Richard Harris reports for NPR on a study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, looking at the best way to entice people to quit tobacco.

He writes: "The researchers compared a few approaches. Some people simply got cash for quitting. Others were offered a carrot-and-stick approach. They'd get a similar financial reward if they quit, but they'd also lose $150 of their own money if they started smoking again."

The researchers found it was harder to persuade people to participate in the program that required them to put their own money on the line in the form of a $150 deposit. But of those who did,  more than half stopped smoking for at least six months, three times the rate of those in the reward-only program. 

Cedars-Sinai uses electronic records to spur improved, lower cost care

I learned that Cedars-Sinai Health System in Los Angeles has developed a cool route toward higher quality, lower cost care: It's incorporated a set of best practice guidelines into its electronic health system.

Essentially, the system alerts physicians when they attempt to order a procedure or medication that could be unnecessary or harmful. This often spurs them to reconsider their decisions, according to Cedars officials.

I discussed this movement to improve the quality of health care, while lowering costs, during our weekly Impatient segment on Take Two.

Which consumer health stories are you reading this week? Tell me about it in the comments section below or find me on Twitter.