College students lose discount on birth control pills
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As female students return to college campuses this fall, many are finding they've lost a bargain that's been available to students for years: cheap birth control.
A federal law aimed at curbing the national debt -- in a roundabout way -- has ended deep discounts on contraceptives and other prescription drugs that pharmaceutical companies have offered to college students.
At Carnegie Mellon University, popular name brands Ortho Evra (the patch), Ortho Tri-Cyclen and Cyclessa that previously sold for $10 per month's cycle in school pharmacies are now going for $40. Penn State University has seen costs rise from $16 per cycle to more than $30. University of Pittsburgh students saw a price increase from as little as $8 a pack to more than $40.
And those with no generic equivalents are up even more.
Although the new law took effect in January, many college health centers had already purchased large supplies of birth control at the cheaper rate and carried the discount prices into late spring. So it's this fall that most students will be seeing the higher prices that more closely match the cost of contraceptives sold at commercial pharmacies.
Students and health officials worry that the increase will affect both students' sexual health and their wallets.
Carnegie Mellon freshman Asha Carroll had no idea that the price of contraceptives would increase at colleges. Although she isn't on birth control, she thinks it should be accessible to students because it won't stop people from having sex -- it will just increase pregnancy risk.
"It's obviously important to protect against that type of thing," the St. Paul, Minn., native said.
Anita Barkin, director of Student Health Services at Carnegie Mellon, has similar sentiments.
"I think it's unfortunate because we have very bright, talented young women who find themselves in a situation ... that becomes more intimate, and they want to safeguard against an unwanted child," she said. "We've placed a barrier ... in their way, and I think that's unfortunate."
The cost increases are an outgrowth of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which Congress narrowly passed in hopes of saving nearly $40 billion over five years from mandatory spending programs affecting Medicare and Medicaid, among other government services.
The act ended up forcing college health centers nationwide to raise prices of contraceptives, impacting roughly 40 percent of college women who use birth control to prevent pregnancies -- or more than 3 million students.
Here's why: Before the law's passage, pharmaceutical companies sold contraceptives and prescription drugs to college health centers at large discounts in an attempt to grab customers at a young age to build brand loyalty. In many cases, students paid as little as $5 for a month's worth of birth control.
But the new law eliminated that incentive because the companies had to pay more to participate in Medicaid. They had to cut expenses elsewhere.
The change has hit colleges all over the country. At Yale University, prices varied brand to brand, and now students can expect to pay up to $45 a pack. Prices at the University of South Carolina jumped from $12 to $20 per pack to more than $50 per pack for several medications including Ortho Tri-Cyclen and NuvaRing -- more than a 400 percent markup.
Pitt junior Emily Aigner is concerned for students' money issues because some don't have many alternatives.
"I think college students definitely understand the concept of being strapped for money. It's a resource a lot of people relied on that will be taken away," said Ms. Aigner, of Altoona. "If the money's not there, there's not going to be another option."
Some institutions planned ahead to extend the discount. Before the law went into effect, the University of Michigan, which distributes about 19,000 birth-control-pill products each year, purchased a large stock of contraceptives that don't expire until mid-2008, said Gwendolyn Chivers, ancillary services director.
A cycle of birth control costs about $20. But once supplies run out, prices are likely to jump.
Carnegie Mellon also offers some relief.
All of the approximately 9,300 students at the school are required to be insured, with about half of those on Carnegie Mellon's student health insurance. Through the school's insurance, generic birth control is $5 a cycle and brands are $20. "That's been a fortunate thing that's softened the impact for us," Ms. Barkin said.
Still, some students not on the school's plan suffer, and Ms. Barkin suggested students switch to generic drugs to "buffer the effect."
Switching drugs might save a few dollars, but it isn't always the best choice. Changing birth controls has potential side effects and an adjustment period just like any other medication.
There are other sources for cheaper birth control. Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, Downtown, offers birth control pills at a maximum of $20 a cycle. The price is on a sliding fee scale, dependent on age and income of the individual. About half of the roughly 2,000 packs of birth control pills -- patches and NuvaRings not included -- distributed each month are for college-age women, said chief executive officer Kimberlee Evert.
Adagio Health, a medical service similar to Planned Parenthood, also offers birth control to individuals on a sliding scale based on family size and income. The maximum price for a packet of birth control also is $20. Adagio has two offices convenient to students: the East Liberty office, 211 N. Whitfield St., and the Downtown office, at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Stanwix Street in the Kossman Building, Suite 1000.
Some organizations, such as federally funded family planning services, are exempt from the deficit act, and the American College Health Association is urging legislators to push for college and university health centers to be exempt as "safety net providers."
The organization submitted comments to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid in February asking to be included in this definition, said Mary Hoban, director of the national college health assessment at the ACHA.
However, the federal agency turned down the association's request on July 17, stating, "We believe that there are already programs in place by which manufacturers can continue to make available drugs to the indigent and underinsured without raising best price concerns for drug companies."
For now, colleges will have to deal with the price hikes.
"I know that I'm almost broke," said Elyse Carr, a Carnegie Mellon freshman from Bethesda, Md. "This is just one more thing. It should be accessible."
First Published August 28, 2007 11:33 pm