Women demand Donnelly help cut cost of birth control

(from the South Bend Tribune. Emphasis in the text below by Donnelly Watch)

Tribune Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND — Some Indiana University South Bend students and employees are demanding that Congress take action to reverse a steep hike in the cost of birth-control pills sold at the campus health center.

Prices for oral contraceptives last year began doubling and tripling at college health centers, the result of a complex change in the Medicaid rebate law that essentially ended an incentive for drug companies to provide deep discounts to colleges.

IUSB students and employees recently delivered a petition with 600 signatures gathered on campus to the local office of U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger. Spearheaded by IUSB’s Feminist Student Union, the petition demands that Congress restore affordable birth control to colleges. It urges Donnelly to push his congressional colleagues and take action to reverse the price hikes.

IUSB has been dispensing prescription birth control for about five years, since the campus Health and Wellness Center was established. The center also sells emergency contraceptives (the “morning-after” pill) and provides free condoms. The center is not open to the general public.

IUSB senior Erin Tracey, 26, of Niles, started taking birth-control pills several years ago after a physician prescribed them to treat dysmenorrhea (cramps and painful menstruation) and adult acne. Tracey’s health insurance does not cover the cost.The name-brand version recommended by her doctor is not available at IUSB because of the high price, $50 to $60 a month, so she buys a generic version at the health center for $15 a month. “A couple years ago it would have been much less expensive,” she said.

Tracey said the name-brand version is more expensive than she can afford.

She signed the petition and helped collect signatures. “It’s important to me because I strongly believe that sex education and access to affordable birth control would prevent abortion and unwanted pregnancies,” she said.

The price hike at colleges is the result of a chain reaction started by a 2005 federal deficit-reduction bill that focused on Medicaid. Before the change, pharmaceutical companies typically sold drugs at deep discounts to a range of health care providers, including colleges. For drug companies, one motivation was attracting loyal customers.

The discounts didn’t count against the drug companies in a formula calculating rebates they owed states to participate in Medicaid.But in the 2005 bill — which went into effect in early 2007 — Congress changed that. Discounts to colleges mean drug companies have to pay more to participate in Medicaid. So fewer companies offer discounts.

Before the price hike, IUSB students and employees paid about $10 for a month’s worth of name-brand birth-control pills.

The fee now is about $15 a month, and that’s for generics. The center stocks three brands of generic birth-control pills, because the name-brand prices have increased so much, said Laura Hieronymus, director of IUSB’s health center. “We can’t afford to purchase the more expensive brands,” she said.

The price compares to about $32 a month for generics at a commercial pharmacy, she said.

Women sometimes are prescribed birth-control pills for various health conditions, not just to prevent pregnancy, she noted. “The (varieties) we have work well for some students but not for all,” she said. The issue isn’t about providing inexpensive birth control to young single college students, Hieronymus said. “The majority of women we take care of are married and have kids and families,” she said. About 40 percent of IUSB’s students are over 26 years old.

Providing economical, reliable birth control is a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions, she said.

IUSB no longer stocks the NuvaRing, a once-a-month form of contraception, because its price rose to more than $40 per month, she said. “The NuvaRing was our No. 1 seller,” Hieronymus said.

IUSB has dispensed about 150 monthly packs of birth-control pills since August, serving at least 50 students and employees. The center has dispensed about 30 morning-after doses since August, at $20 per dose. About 1,000 free condoms have been distributed on campus this academic year.

At the campus health center, students and employees can receive a physical exam, be treated for minor illnesses, and get prescriptions filled. About 30 percent of the center’s business is related to women’s health issues. As a nurse practitioner, Hieronymus can legally write and dispense prescriptions. IUSB is among four IU campuses that sell prescription contraceptives at on-campus health centers. The others are IU Bloomington, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“The rising price is indicative of the general upward trend in health-care costs and drug prices,” Donnelly said in a written statement issued Wednesday. “More than that, it’s indicative of a federal government that is constrained in what it can do to help people with those rising costs by a budget that is deep in deficit.”

(Why is the federal government so constrained, Joe? Could it be that the incredibly expensive and disastrous War in Iraq has something to do with it? – DW)

The congressman said he’s tackling both problems at the same time: working to make health care and prescription drugs more affordable, and working to reduce the deficit. Sound fiscal policies will make it easier for the federal government to invest in health programs for everyone, especially those in the working and middle classes, Donnelly said.

About 39 percent of undergraduate women use oral contraceptives, according to an estimate by the American College Health Association based on survey data.

IUSB student Alyssa Malott, 20, of South Bend, doesn’t buy contraceptives at the campus health center, but she is concerned about how rising prices will affect students, employees and their families.The price hike “affects many people in many ways,” Malott said. Some people on campus might not be able to afford the higher prices, she said. “If even one student had to drop out of school (as a result), it’s an outrage,” she said.


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