A new study concludes that if oral contraceptive pills (OCPs), commonly referred to as birth control pills, were available over-the-counter and covered by insurance, a drop as high as 25% could occur in unintended pregnancies.
The study, published by the journal Contraception, was conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, and the nonprofit Ibis Reproductive Health.
If women were able to purchase the pill at any pharmacy without a prescription and have their insurance company cover the cost, there would be an 11 percent to 21 percent rise in the number of women using birth control pills, with a decline in unintended pregnancies in the U.S. of 7 percent to 25 percent, the study concluded.
"Women who are currently using methods that are less effective than the pill -- mainly condoms or nothing -- would use it," said Dan Grossman, author of the study. "Particularly low-income women."
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Birth control pills are currently covered without co-payment through insurance plans in the U.S., up to a specific amount depending on the cost of the pill, under the Affordable Care Act.
The requirement of a prescription is an issue standing in the way for many women, Grossman said.
“In the era of no-co-pay contraception, there is still a need for over-the-counter birth control to fill the gap when women run out of pills while traveling, for example, or for those who find it inconvenient to get to a clinic," Grossman said. "But to reach the largest number of women most in need, it’s critical that a future OTC pill be covered by insurance.”
Most insurance companies do not cover over-the-counter (OTC) medications. If birth control pills were made available OTC, and insurance companies did not cover the cost -- a plan that Republicans have proposed -- it could lessen the amount of women taking the pill because of the high cost of the medication and their inability to afford it, as women’s use of a bith control pill sharply declines if the cost of a pack is over $20.
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Depending on the type of birth control pill a woman uses, it can cost up to $162 a pack without insurance, Huffington Post reports.
"Using an over-the-counter birth control pill is very correlated to how much it's going to cost," Grossman said.
Republicans were supportive of over-the-counter birth control pills as an alternative to the requirement in Obamacare that all insurance plans cover contraception without out-of-pocket costs to the woman.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) campaigned for over-the-counter birth control during his Senate run last year, stating Republicans are “figuring out a direct policy to move forward with” on the issue.
Gardner did not provide further clarification, but added that, “If insurance companies cover it, they cover it,” referring to a hypothetical over-the-counter contraceptive.
Democrats are skeptical about OTC birth control as it may remove the requirement for insurance companies to cover the medication, causing the cost for a woman to grow.
"I’m disappointed that Republicans have introduced bill after bill this Congress to turn back the clock on women’s rights, but if any of my Republican colleagues would like to reverse course, stop using women’s health as a political football, and work with Democrats to help more women benefit from the contraceptive care that is now covered under the Affordable Care Act, my door is open," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) said.
In order for the birth control pill, or any contraceptive, to be made available over-the-counter it must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The pharmaceutical company would have to conduct safety tests and formally apply to the FDA, as is what Teva Women’s Health did for the morning-after pill Plan B.
The fact that Republicans have not said they would block approval by the FDA for over-the-counter birth control pills shows encouragement, according to Grossman.
"There isn't anything politicians can do to make the pill over the counter, despite what some of the Republican candidates said in the last election," Grossman said. "But if at the very least they would stay out of this, there would be more interest from pharmaceutical companies."
Republicans that support over-the-counter birth control pills have an ally in Planned Parenthood.
"We strongly support making birth control available over the counter, as part of our nearly 100-year history of expanding access to birth control," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund said. "Every woman in America should have access to the birth control method that's best for her, without barriers based on cost, availability, stigma, or any other hurdle."
If OTC birth control pills become a reality -- without nixing insurance coverage of prescription birth control -- it could be a real game-changer for the U.S.