"free" signUPDATE, 8/1/11: Good news: Women will no longer have to make co-pays on birth control, the Obama administration announced on Aug. 1. Insurance companies will be required to fully cover the cost of contraception and other preventive health-care services for women, thanks the Department of Health and Human Services, which decided to follow recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. (More on all that below.)

Less-good news: We’ve got to wait almost a year and a half. For most plans, the new rules won’t apply until January 2013. But at least there’s an end in sight for those co-pays. (Alas, if you don’t have insurance, this policy won’t help you. Better fight to keep Planned Parenthood funded.)

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Birth control is expensive, even for women who have health insurance. But the Obama administration may be about to fix that.

The health-care bill enacted last year calls for “preventive” care to be covered fully by insurance plans — no co-pays, no deductibles, just actually covered.

Birth control is by any logical definition “preventive,” but we all know that logic doesn’t prevail in Washington, D.C. So the feds are going through some bureaucratic steps to determine whether contraception does indeed deserve the “preventive” label. First, the independent Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academies of Science, spent months studying the issue, and this week it released its findings: Yes, birth control fits the bill! Next, the Department of Health and Human Services will consider those findings and make the final call, expected by Aug. 1.

Right now, co-pays for birth-control pills can run between $10 and $50 a month — that really adds up, especially when times are tight. Longer-lasting methods can cause severe sticker shock. Vanessa Cullins wrote in The New York Times on Monday that her daughter would like to get an IUD but can’t afford the up-front payment of $1,200, required because her insurance plan has a $1,500 deductible.

One-third of women voters have struggled at some point with the cost of prescription birth control, according to a poll conducted last year for Planned Parenthood. And a 2009 survey [PDF] by the Guttmacher Institute found that 8 percent of American women sometimes didn’t use birth control in order to save money; that includes 18 percent of women on the Pill who used it inconsistently in order to reduce costs.

No wonder nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. Get your mind around that — half! Think of how much good could come from bringing down that percentage — happier and healthier women and families, more of our children born into welcoming homes, fewer abortions, less strain on our country’s overtaxed infrastructure, fewer Americans exacerbating our environmental problems, and, according to Cullins, billions saved in our health-care system. Even if the only outcome were giving women control over their bodies and lives, that would be huge.

There are a few right-wing outliers who oppose full insurance coverage of birth control, like the Family Research Council and some old Catholic bishops.

But a vast majority of Americans support full coverage of contraception costs — 71 percent, according to a Planned Parenthood poll last year, including 72 percent of Republican women and 77 percent of Catholic women. A separate NPR-Thomson Reuters poll conducted in April found that 77 percent of people believe insurance should cover some or all of the cost of oral contraceptives.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called the Institute of Medicine report “historic” and “based on science,” and she has suggested previously that she’d like to see better contraceptive coverage. If her department follows the report’s guidance, insurers will have to start offering free birth control — maybe not until January 2013, but better late than never.

So often the decisions made in Washington can feel distant and irrelevant to our daily lives. But this one couldn’t be more personal for millions of Americans, myself included. Women, are you ready for some good news for once?