When Americans seek care for most common health conditions, there is rarely much question about coverage. Every day, consumers—including those on Medicaid and Medicare—seek care for sore joints, depression, and even acne without worrying about whether or not their insurance will cover their doctor visits and medications. For the most part, coverage for sexual health issues is less straightforward—but why? Is it because sexual health issues are not considered legitimate illnesses? Because the costs are significant? Or is it because raising the topic of sexual health can offend certain personal and organizational values? Whatever the reason, it is time for a change.
It’s hard to deny the human and economic burden of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) on this country. The CDC estimates that 110 million Americans are infected with an STI, resulting in direct medical costs of $16 billion annually. The most common and fastest growing STI in this country is human papillomavirus (HPV), and it is estimated that half of sexually active men and women will get HPV at some point in their lives. In 2006, a vaccine for HPV was introduced and now there are several. CDC guidelines recommend administering a multi-dose series, costing about $250–450, to all boys and girls at age 11 or 12. (Some states require the vaccine for school admission.) It was included in mandatory coverage under the ACA. Since the HPV vaccine was first recommended in 2006 there has been a 64% reduction in vaccine-type HPV infections among teen girls in the United States.
It seems clear that this kind of care for sexual health is necessary for public health and is also part of caring for the whole individual, a central tenet of population health. But what about sexual health care that doesn’t involve infectious disease? Is it still a population health issue if there’s no communicable disease involved?
Let’s take erectile dysfunction (ED) for example. It is nearly as common in men over 40 as HPV is in the general population—more than half of men over 40 experience some level of ED, and more than 23 million American men have been prescribed Viagra. With a significant portion of the population suffering from ED, is it important for payers and providers to consider ED treatment to be essential health care and to cover it accordingly? Medications like Viagra and Cialis are an expensive burden at upwards of $50 per pill. Medicare D does not cover any drugs for ED, but some private insurers do when the medications are deemed medically necessary by a doctor. A handful of states require them to do so, but they are typically listed as Tier 3 medications—nonessential and with the highest co-pays.
Almost 7 million American women have used infertility services. Coverage for infertility diagnosis and treatment is not mandated by the ACA, though 15 states require commercial payers to provide various levels of coverage. The cost of infertility treatments is highly variable depending on the methods used but in vitro fertilization treatments, as one measure, average upward of $12,000 per attempt.
Are treatments for ED and infertility elective or necessary? In an age of consumerism and heightened attention to the whole patient across a broader continuum of care, organizations that support the availability of a broad set of sexual health services to a diverse group of consumers will have a big competitive advantage, but they may face challenges balancing the costs. Health care has advanced in both technical and philosophical ways that allow people to manage their diseases, cure their problems, and overcome limitations. It has also shone light on the significant advantages to considering a diagnosis in the context of the whole individual—their social and emotional health as well as coexisting conditions. Studies have shown, for example, that infertility, ED, and STIs all have a significant relationship with depression and anxiety.
It’s time sexual health was folded in to the broader definition of wellness instead of marginalized as a separate issue. For too many Americans, it’s too big an issue not to address.