In covering the rapidly changing political landscape surrounding women's health issues, I keep thinking of shoelaces. Everything that was tied up in the previous presidential administration is quickly coming undone. Last week, President Obama took steps to overturn the conscience rights regulation—issued in the Bush administration's final days—that many pro-abortion rights advocates worried would restrict women's access to abortions and various forms of contraception. In January, he rescinded the global gag rule implemented by Bush, which restricted U.S. funding for foreign health clinics that provided referrals for abortions. And last night, Congress passed a provision in its massive omnibus spending bill that allows pharmaceutical companies to reinstate discounts on birth control pills and other hormonal contraceptives that they had previously offered to family planning clinics and college campus health clinics.
A 2005 federal law, designed to save taxpayers money on Medicaid reimbursements for drugs, financially dissuaded pharmaceutical companies from selling their products to these pharmacies at slashed prices. College women were particularly affected. Many saw their favorite contraceptive brands' cost rise from $5 to $10 a month to $30 to $50 a month. The new provision, in a bill expected to be signed by Obama as early as today, allows drug companies to once again offer the discounts, at no cost to taxpayers.
"It's a tremendous victory for women's health," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards tells me. "It's an indication we have a government now that's really focused on prevention and expanding access to women's healthcare." During the Bush years, her nonprofit had organized a large petition drive among college students, as well as meetings with congressional leaders, in a futile attempt to change the policy.
As a result of the higher prices, some college health clinics, like the one at Bowdoin College, stopped offering hormonal contraceptives altogether because they couldn't afford to maintain the costly inventory. While most clinics were able to offer cheaper, generic versions of birth control pills, the monthly vaginal insert NuvaRing and the patch (placed on the skin) have no generic equivalents. "The NuvaRing in particular was catching on in popularity among college students because it afforded them privacy and the convenience of not having to take a pill every day," says Mary Hoban of the American College Health Association. But, she points out, the new provision "only removes the barrier that was put in place; it doesn't guarantee that manufacturers will reinstate those nominal price contracts."
So will companies offer these bargain rates once again? After all, the economy has tanked since they last offered them. "We're looking into it. It's something we would definitely like to support," says Lisa Ellen, spokesperson for Schering-Plough, manufacturer of NuvaRing. Don't expect, though, to see those contraceptive discounts overnight: Health clinics will need time to renegotiate their contracts with the drug companies and will probably want to first sell off their stock of higher-priced contraceptives before purchasing cheaper supplies, says Hoban. Bottom line: Students may not feel an ease on their pocketbooks until the next academic year.