Deficit reduction ups contraceptive costs

College students across the country continue to cope with increases in birth control costs resulting from the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. While USF students are paying up to three times the previous cost for contraceptives, Student Health Services(SHS) is paying for the increase with an influx of office work and congestion.

“Everything is being affected,” said Dr. Egilda Terenzi, director of SHS. “All around, it is not an easy situation.”

Traditionally, pharmaceutical manufacturers received rebates for certain products, resulting in significant reductions in cost. Because companies bought contraceptives at such low prices, they were able to sell them cheaply to college health centers, which would pass the low costs on to students.

The Deficit Reduction Act was designed to combat potential abuse of the rebates by drug manufacturers.

“Congress started tinkering with the nominal drug price exception because evidence had emerged that pharmaceutical companies were using it in ways to benefit themselves rather than the public,” said Wendy Sears Grassi, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. “But in closing the loophole on pharmaceutical companies, lawmakers failed to make clear that the exemption would still hold for college and community health centers.”

As a result, many health care centers, including college health services, low-income providers such as Medicaid and some Planned Parenthood centers, had to purchase and resell contraceptives at increased prices.

Before the act went into effect on Jan. 1 2007, SHS was able to sell students birth control pills, birth control patches and implant devices such as NuvaRing for $14 per monthly cycle or $35 for a three-month pack. Now students must pay $40 a month for brand name contraceptives and $20 for generics. Multiple packs are no longer available.

“It creates so much more behind-the-scenes work,” Terenzi said.

SHS employees assemble students’ monthly contraception packs in-office. Without the option of purchasing multiple cycles at once, the workload and office congestion have greatly increased.

“We encourage students to use the hotline and Web site for ordering and other needs to reduce traffic,” Terenzi said.

To prepare for the price increases, SHS and other college health centers nationwide stockpiled contraceptives. Terenzi said it was tricky, though, because the office had to be wary of expiration dates and sales.

“It would have been useless to stockpile products that would not sell and then eventually expire on the shelf,” she said. “All universities have reported similar experiences.”

A range of large-scale concerns continues to plague the issue, including the possible ramifications for women suddenly unable to afford contraceptives.

Carolyn Eichner, associate professor in the Department of Women’s Studies, said she is very troubled about the implications of the raise in prices.

“This is extremely detrimental to students and poor women, as it means that some women may choose to go without contraception, thus risking unwanted pregnancies and all the subsequent ramifications,” she said.

Alexandra Southard is the leader for the USF division of VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood, a national student organization dedicated to raising public awareness about reproductive rights. VOX has been working to draw attention to the act’s negative impact on campus and in the community.

“VOX members have been active in posting flyers around campus directing students to places that carry more affordable birth control,” she said.

One member even wrote a letter to the editor of the Tampa Tribune to address the challenges faced by certain women seeking to obtain contraceptives.

“The Deficit Reduction Act raised the cost of birth control by as much as 900 percent for some low-income and college women,” Southard said. “For these women, $20 or more a month could be a big deal.”

Southard said birth control is often expensive even with insurance coverage, and having to pay the full price is particularly straining for college students.

“It is a shame that responsible women who need assistance have to face this financial challenge,” she said.

Krystal Messenger, a junior majoring in mass communications, has never purchased contraceptives through SHS but is a contraceptive user. She pays $50.87 a month for her prescription for the birth control pill Yaz, which her insurance does not cover. She recently calculated her expenses and realized that she pays more than $600 a year for contraception.

“Do you know what I could do with $600?” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford birth control if it goes up any more.”

Another controversy surrounding the act is that despite lawmakers’ claims that its inclusion of college health centers and low-income providers was an erroneous oversight, it remains intact.

“For too many women and families across America, this is an urgent, urgent situation,” Grassi said. “Women cannot wait to have this mistake corrected and affordable birth control returned. Congress must act now to restore affordable birth control pricing at college health centers and to other providers.”

In a November press release, Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the delay in correcting the technical error “adds insult to injury.”

“It’s unfair and shocking that Congress is becoming part of this anti-birth control trend,” she said.

Messenger said that if the act’s inclusion of student health centers and Medicaid was truly an error, then it needs to be fixed.

“If they wanted to fix it, the government could fix it,” she said. “Nothing is being done. It seems like they’re either just lazy or intentionally trying to keep birth control out of certain people’s hands.”

Eichner echoes this sentiment.

“This act reflects the current administration’s disregard for women’s health and for the health of the poor,” she said. “It is also very clearly an attack on women’s reproductive rights – it effectively makes contraception unavailable for an increasing sector of the population.”

Terenzi believes the price increase for college health centers to be an unintentional consequence of the Deficit Reduction Act and not an attack on reproductive rights.

“The government has so far failed to correct it, although legislation has been proposed,” she said.

She said USF has not experienced a drop in the number of students seeking birth control.

“We have truly asked students to think long and hard about the fact that they might have to give this up,” she said, adding that free condoms are still readily available on campus.

“It’s all a balance, and we hope that people will continue purchasing their birth control,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s a shared responsibility by sexual partners to obtain birth control.”