BELLINGHAM - New federal legislation aims to reinstate affordable birth control for university students and low-income women as early as 2008, after legislation inadvertently sent prices through the roof last year.Local providers say some women are paying as much as 10 times the usual amount for prescription birth control since the Deficit Reduction Act that went into effect in October 2006. The bill, which was meant to reduce unnecessary federal health-care spending, neglected to define which health-care providers are eligible for deeply discounted drugs, leaving out universities and other so-called safety-net providers across the nation, including Western Washington University.
The ensuing "birth control crisis," as some providers are calling it, has caused many WWU students to seek providers who weren't affected by the act - such as Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood - for affordable contraceptives.
Planned Parenthood staff says the influx has overwhelmed the clinic with new patients at a time when Medicaid reimbursement cuts have reduced staff.
The WWU Student Health Center has been forced to increase prices for basic services by about 5 percent as it struggles to offset the cost of maintaining affordable birth control.
"There have been some students who just simply can't afford it," said WWU Health Center Director Emily Gibson. "We have had to go to other (generic) brands to make things more affordable."
U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both D-Wash., have supported the Prevention First Act, the companion to the House's Prevention Through Affordable Access Act. The bills aim to reinstate safety-net providers' right to discounted birth control and other prescription drugs.
Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo, the WWU center's most popular brand, cost $3.20 a cycle last year, and was sold for $15, Gibson said. Now it costs $33.31 per cycle, and the center offers it for $40.
We've had to cut back our budget as a result," Gibson said. "We've tried to make it up in other areas, like surgical procedures, casts and other medications."
Birth control sales have dropped slightly since the price jump, Gibson said, though the number of women the center sees for exams has not.
Although Gibson said student pregnancy rates haven't increased, women may be relying more on emergency contraceptives like Plan B. Prices of those pills weren't affected because they were not deeply discounted like conventional contraceptives.
Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Christina Carr said the clinic falls under a definition that kept it from being affected.
"We've had an increase in patients, and many students come to us saying they can't afford it," Carr said.
WWU Senior Kelly McManus said she goes to Planned Parenthood for birth control.
"Birth control is shockingly expensive (elsewhere)," she said. "I saw it for $30 a month at a pharmacy. A dollar a day is a lot for a college student. You can eat breakfast for a dollar a day."
Reach Cat Sieh at email@example.com
© 2007 The Bellingham Herald