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Health Highlights: Aug. 1, 2012

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Free Contraception, Well-Woman Visits Tied to Health Care Reform Begin

Starting Wednesday, up to 47 million American women can now gain free access to contraception, well-woman visits, STD screening and other benefits linked to the Affordable Care Act, CBS News reported.

"Women deserve to have control over their health care," Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote on a blog posted on Healthcare.gov. "Too often, they have gone without preventive services, worrying about what even a $20 insurance co-pay would mean to their families' budgets and choosing to pay for groceries or rent instead. But now, thanks to the health care law, many women won't have to make that choice."

Starting Aug. 1, women will not have provide a co-pay for well-woman visits (including annual check-ups or more if doctors deem necessary); contraceptives and contraception counseling; HPV testing every three years for women aged 30 or over; annual sexually transmitted disease counseling, including HIV screening/counseling; domestic violence screening and counseling; screening for gestational diabetes and breast-feeding support, supplies and counseling.

The new benefits currently only apply to women who are enrolled in a health insurance plan, CBS News notes, although more uninsured women are expected to be included as health care reform is fully implemented.

The free services that kick in Wednesday join other no-fee, preventive health measures, such as mammography screening, cervical cancer screenings (via the Pap smear) and prenatal services, that are already covered by the Affordable Care Act.

Not everyone supports the changes, however. According to CBS News, Catholic groups have filed 12 lawsuits in 43 courts across the country to block the provision to supply contraception free of charge.

"The implementation of this policy marks the beginning of the end of religious freedom in our nation," Christen Varley, executive director of Conscience Cause, said in a statement.

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U.S. Blood Supply Critically Low, Red Cross Warns

The level of U.S. blood donations is at its lowest point in 15 years and the shortfall is such that some patients may have to have elective surgeries canceled, the American Red Cross reports.

"People will put off having knee replacements, hip replacements and other elective surgery," Danny Cervantes, a donor recruitment director for United Blood Services in Las Vegas, told NBC News.

The shortfall appears due to a number of factors. Kim Talkington, regional director of donor recruitment for the Red Cross in Wichita, Kan., told NBC News that there's a high demand for blood in summer because it's high season for travel and road accidents.

On the donor side, the supply from college students -- who typically make up about one-fifth of donations -- falls by about half in the summer months, according to Quincy, Ill., donor recruitment representative Beth Forbes.

This summer has been especially tough for the blood supply because storms have upped demand in the East and Midwest, even as they helped dry up the supply, according to Rodney Wilson, another Red Cross representative based in Ohio.

"The power outages and storms we experienced earlier in the month caused dozens of blood drives to be canceled," Wilson told NBC News. "We normally try to keep a three-day supply on hand locally, and we are down to a one-day supply."

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