Womb for improvement: rethink over-the-counter birth control

At the beginning of April, California became the third state to sell birth control ‘over-the-counter,’ or without a prescription from a doctor. Oregon and Washington were the first and second states, respectively, to allow the sale of over-the-counter birth control.

While it isn’t over-the-counter in the traditional sense, the new system circumvents the doctor’s office. Patients can visit a local pharmacy, complete a questionnaire and then receive their contraceptive pills, patches or rings with a pharmacist’s prescription.

Making birth control more accessible is beneficial to women’s health. Birth control can regulate periods, treat polycystic ovary syndrome, ease severe menstrual cramps and address other medical concerns. It’s also great at its intended function – preventing pregnancy.

Lawmakers in California, Washington and Oregon have the right idea. Streamlining the process of acquiring birth control would make life easier for women across America. In 2010, a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 62 percent of U.S. women of reproductive age were using some form of contraception.

However, this new system doesn’t make birth control as available as it should be. Insurance companies aren’t required to cover the costs of pharmacy-prescribed birth control. They also aren’t required to compensate pharmacists for the time they spend administering questionnaires or assisting patients. This means some patients pay a pharmacist’s fee of $25 or more to get a birth control prescription from a pharmacy.

At the moment, the only guaranteed benefit of the new birth control system is saving time. Rather than having to wait on a doctor’s appointment, patients can visit a pharmacy any time for a quick consultation. However, consultation fees can easily take the place of a doctor’s visit copay, eliminating the financial benefit that could have come from cutting doctors out of the process. Furthermore, insurance companies aren’t required to cover over-the-counter birth control, so some women would end up spending hundreds of dollars each year on contraception instead of zero.

The availability of birth control is of particular importance to impoverished women, who often have little access to or financial resources for contraceptives. Some birth control can be purchased for less than $10 per month, even without insurance. However, the cost of getting a prescription can price some of these women out of purchasing contraceptives.

This socioeconomic group maintains the highest rates of unintended pregnancy, lowest rates of contraception use and highest rates of abortions in the U.S., according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy organization. A study done by the Brookings Institution found that if single, impoverished women had the same access to contraceptives as their wealthier counterparts­­, their birth rates would likely be reduced by half.

At the moment, impoverished women do not have easy access to resources that would reduce the numbers of unintended pregnancies and abortions among their demographic. Easy access to contraceptives would allow economically disadvantaged women to make financially sound decisions that would benefit their families and their own sexual health.

The current system of making birth control available over-the-counter brings the U.S. one step closer to addressing the health needs of American women, who spend, on average, more than 75 percent of their reproductive years avoiding pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The system doesn’t, however, address the financial needs of some of these women. Fees associated with getting a pharmacist’s prescription and paying for contraceptives that aren’t covered by insurance are financial barriers to lower socioeconomic groups. U.S. lawmakers and citizens should rally together to create a country in which all women are given tools to make wise decisions for their family planning, sexual health and happiness.

Rae Jefferson is a senior journalism major from Houston. She is copy desk chief for the Lariat.

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