Tufts University student Nikki Bruce paid a much higher price for birth control after a change in federal law in 2007. (Photo: Jodi Hilton / The New York Times)
The estimated 39 percent of American college women who use birth control pills could enjoy relief from big price increases over the last two years thanks to a provision in the budget bill signed by President Barack Obama.
Students had seen prices for oral contraceptives at college health clinics shoot up two- and threefold - the apparently unintended consequence of a deficit-reduction provision that went into effect in January, 2007.
The bill Obama signed Wednesday restores an incentive for drug-makers to offer discounts for the pills, although it doesn't guarantee they will do so.
Still, college health officials were celebrating the news.
"It's been something that all of the members of the American College Health Association have been watching very closely," said Dr. Gregory Moore, director of the health service at the University of Kentucky. "There was a great deal of celebrating I'm sure."
Prior to 2007, pharmaceutical companies had a financial incentive to sell drugs at deep discounts to a range of health care providers, including college clinics. The drugmakers were also eager to attract young women to products they would stay with for years after graduation.
But the 2007 change meant the discounts counted against pharmaceutical companies in a formula that calculates the rebates they owe the states to participate in Medicaid, and the discounts stopped.
Colleges passed most of the price increases on to students - from $12 a month to around $30 at Florida State, for instance - and a few smaller colleges that couldn't buy in bulk stopped offering them altogether, forcing their students to get them at higher prices off-campus. The change prompted concerns some students might shift to less preferred contraceptives.
"For those students where they were used to getting oral contraceptives for maybe $10 a month, that quickly escalated to the $30-, $40-, $50-a-month level," Moore said. "For many college students that had a disastrous effect, and they maybe even stopped."
Whether drugmakers will again offer the discounts was still unclear.
A spokeswoman for German-based pharmaceutical company Bayer Schering Pharma AG, which makes the popular oral contraceptive Yaz, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Lisa Ellen, a spokeswoman for Kenilworth, N.J.-based Schering-Plough, which makes another popular contraceptive, Desogen, said the company was reviewing the legislation and "whether and how we're going to support the college health clinics with discounted pricing."
In a statement, Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards called the legislation "a victory for women's health and especially for women who have struggled to afford the rising costs of basic contraception in these tough economic times."