Politicians and activists are waging a campaign to reverse the spike in the price of birth control earlier this year.
On some campuses the cost of many contraceptives has quadrupled, from about $15 dollars a month to about $60. This hasn’t happened at the University of Michigan yet, but it will unless a law that caused the increase is changed.
The higher prices are the result of a bill passed by Congress in 2005 aimed at cutting Medicare and Medicaid costs. The price increase is due to a small change in wording that ended up making it financially unattractive for pharmaceutical companies to sell birth control to college health centers at a heavily discounted rate. That meant a steep price increase for students.
Relief might be on the way. Earlier this month, bills were introduced in both houses of Congress to change the language in the Deficit Reduction Act so that college health centers and health care providers like Planned Parenthood Federation of America can once again receive the discounts many politicians say they should. Many congressional aides say the bills seem to have broad support, but none are sure when they will be voted on. Both have been referred to committees. Twenty-two senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. The House version has 123 cosponsors.
Lori Lamerand, president of the Mid-Michigan Planned Parenthood Alliance, said that Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has been “very vocal” on the issue. Stabenow is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill. Her office did not return calls for comment yesterday.
Planned Parenthood is lobbying for the legislation’s passage.
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) introduced the House bill. Rohit Mahajan, a spokesman for Crowley, said Crowley is optimistic that the bill will pass.
“Congressman Crowley feels it’s something that needs to be fixed,” Mahajan said. “The (Bush) administration has had a chance to do so and simply didn’t. Now it’s Congress’s job to take that role so that birth control is affordable for students and affordable throughout the country.”
Adam Benson, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn), whose district includes Ann Arbor, said Dingell is “carefully monitoring the situation and looking for opportunities to fix the many damaging provisions of the DRA.”
The American College Health Association is one of the most active groups lobbying Congress to change the language of the Deficit Reduction Act.
“What we’re talking about ultimately I think is helping young men and women stay healthy, stay well and complete their academic goals without having to deal with an unintended pregnancy,” said Mary Hoban, the director of the ACHA’s National College Health Assessment Program Office. “It’s not just about women. It’s mainly about women, but it’s not just about women.”
For now, student groups, health centers and women are looking for ways to get around the price increase.
The health center at Bowdoin College in Maine has suggested to women that they share the financial burden of birth control with their boyfriends.
“Right now the health center is telling people that if you are in a relationship with a significant other you should really think about splitting the cost of the birth control,” said Cassia Roth, a former co-chair of the Bowdoin Women’s Association.
College health centers are struggling to find creative ways to provide their students with affordable birth control.
The University of Michigan’s health service, for example, spent over $50,000 dollars last year stockpiling certain forms of contraceptives like Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo before the price increase took effect, officials said.
Dr. Robert Winfield, director of University Health Service, said UHS will continue to offer Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo, as well as the other drugs it has stockpiled, at a lower price until the supply runs out – which officials say will happen no later than April. At that point, prices will rise if changes aren’t made to the law.
Right now, UHS sells two of the most commonly used drugs – Ortho Tri-Cyclen and Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo – at $23.80 for one cycle.
One cycle of birth control drugs lasts roughly a month.
Women who use birth control drugs that UHS didn’t stockpile are already dealing with higher prices. They’re either choosing to pay the higher cost or are switching to less expensive, generic forms of birth control, Winfield said.
“The fact is we do have plenty of contraceptives that are in the generic category that are in the low $20 range,” he said. UHS offers 16 different birth control drugs that cost less than $20 for one cycle.
Dr. Susan Ernst, chief of the Gynecology Clinic at UHS, said that while there are many forms of generic pills that work well, switching birth control brands can have other unintended consequences: unpleasant side effects like nausea, mood swings or irregular periods. There is concern among medical professionals that some women, facing far higher costs, will choose not to take birth control at all or will switch to less reliable over-the-counter methods like condoms.
“The fear is that there’s a small number of people where the price of the pill is expensive enough that they’re forgoing contraception,” Winfield said. But he said he hasn’t seen any cases of unwanted pregnancy due to the higher cost of birth control.