No price control for birth control

For college students, safe sex just got more expensive. Prices for prescription contraceptives have surged at student health centers across the country.

The recent Deficit Reduction Act (DRA), passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush, prevented the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from allowing universities to purchase hormonal birth control at discounted prices as they had been able to do in the past.

Prior to the DRA, student health centers were exempt from Medicaid laws that required companies to pay a certain amount of money back to the government to ensure that Medicaid patients were getting the lowest price for the drugs. This allowed drug companies to sell drugs in bulk to non profit clinics like student health centers. This method enabled companies to gain customer loyalty and the student health centers to reduce out-of-pocket costs for students, according to the American College Health Association (ACHA).

As of January 1, however, the law was changed to include college health centers among the organizations that have to pay the government to compensate for offering lower prices to its patients. Therefore, health centers have been forced to charge more for prescriptions to pay back the government.

The reason was that, since college students weren’t included in the average price from which companies had to make up the difference, they were paying approximately 15 percent less than their non-college-affiliated counterparts. The government was forced to charge all these counterparts the same discount, or bring the price at college health centers up to par with that of free clinics and hospitals.

In addition, Congress became aware that some drug companies cheated the system by selling discounted drugs to for-profit hospitals in order to increase sales, according to the ACHA.

The change has affected colleges and universities nationwide that offer prescription birth control to their students, including Carnegie Mellon.

“The price of birth control has doubled and more than tripled in some cases,” said Anita Barkin, director of Student Health Services. “The students who have been particularly hit hard are those who do not have insurance coverage for birth control or have higher deductibles and those students who do not want their parents to be aware of their use of birth control and pay out of pocket for that reason.”

Carnegie Mellon’s student health center provides birth control to about 800 women on campus. Previously, the center provided oral contraceptives for $12 a month. Now, the same amount of medication costs $40. The price changes also affect users of Nuva Ring.

In an effort to reduce costs for students, Student Health Services has increased its purchase of generic brands, which cost $20 per pack. In addition, students with health insurance through Carnegie Mellon’s recommended insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, will continue to receive their contraceptives at a discount (below $20).

Barkin suggests that students who are still unable to afford the new prices consider non-prescription alternatives, such as condoms. When used correctly, condoms are effective in preventing both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection, and are cheaper than prescription methods.

“If a condom slips or breaks, a woman can take Plan B (also known as the morning-after pill), which is available for $30,” Barkin said.

“As many college students tend to be on a tight budget, the recent rise in the price of birth control may cause students to seek other less-expensive options. Unfortunately, many of the less-expensive options are also much less effective,” said Brian McGraw, a sophomore in H&SS and one of the university’s sexual assault advisors.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a permanent solution, affected students have been forced to make some quick budgeting decisions.

“The price increase is detrimental to [everyone] on campus ... People will have to cut down on other things they buy to still afford it,” said Ali Oppelt, a first-year in CIT who receives her birth control from Student Health Services.

The ACHA is lobbying for an amendment to the DRA that would allow collegiate health centers to purchase contraceptives in bulk, as before. A group of representatives from the ACHA even traveled to Capitol Hill in an effort make the CMS aware of the negative impact of the DRA upon students at colleges and universities across the nation.

“I hope no one decides not to use [birth control] because of the price increase,” Oppelt said.

Advocates across the country are working toward a solution in hopes of preventing this problem.

“There has been a nationwide outcry from student health services across the country on this issue,” Barkin stated. “We continue to follow and support the lobbying effort of the American College Health Association.”