Tuesday, May 27, 2008

U.S. Senate Votes to Restore Affordable Contraception

Last Thursday, the Senate passed a funding bill that includes a provision which would close a loophole responsible for dramatically driving up birth control prices.

The Senate on Thursday passed a supplemental war funding bill that includes a provision that removes a disincentive to pharmaceutical companies to offer deeply discounted birth control to college health centers and certain non-profit family planning clinics, CQ Today reports. The bill also includes provisions preventing seven new Medicaid regulations from taking effect until April 1, 2009.

The drug pricing change is modeled after legislation (S 2347) introduced by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in November 2007. The cost of birth control at college clinics as well as about 400 community-based family planning clinics increased last year as the result of a change included in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.

According to CQ Today, all Democrats present, as well as two independent and 25 Republican senators, voted in favor of the bill. The Senate passed a domestic spending amendment, which includes the Medicaid and birth control discount provisions, by a 75-22 vote.

So what was going on that required a fix in the law? This Opinion piece, written before this bill was passed, offers a concise explanation:

For nearly 30 years, federal laws have been in place to help safety net providers, including college health clinics, buy birth control at affordable prices, then pass on their savings to college and low-income women. But in 2006, Congress changed this long-standing law - putting affordable contraception out of reach for millions of women. For example, women on college campuses typically pay between $5 and $10 a month for birth control. Now, because of the change in the law, college women are paying upwards of $40 and $50 a month. That translates into an additional $500 out of their pockets each year, a costly expense for women already on tight budgets.

How did this happen? The Deficit Reduction Act (DRA), passed by Congress in 2006 included a provision that adversely affects the ability of university health centers and other safety net family planning providers to purchase contraceptives at a discounted or nominal price. By most accounts, it was an inadvertent outcome of a complicated change in the law. However, nothing has been done to fix it, and millions of college women and low-income are being penalized.
Congress has known about this pricing change and its devastating effects all year, yet has dragged its feet on fixing it. The solution will cost taxpayers nothing, and would simply clarify that college health clinics and other safety net providers are eligible to purchase nominally priced birth control.

Planned Parenthood has been doing a lot of work on this issue, both at federal and local levels, as have many other organizations that support accessible contraception. So it's exciting to see action being taken.

President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, though it's seemingly for reasons that do not include the birth control pricing fix. However, it has been indicated that the Senate may be able to override a veto. We'll just have to wait and see how it plays out: the bill goes back to the House next week, for approval of changes made by the Senate. Hopefully, Congress will do the right thing by low-income women and college students and restore their access to vital, affordable reproductive health care. You can ask your legislator to support this provision here.

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