December 15, 2011 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

In August of this year, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that, as part of its preventive health initiative under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, insurance companies would be required to provide birth control with no co-pay beginning in August of next year. This decision empowers women to have more control over their reproduction and should (hopefully) decrease the percentage of unintended pregnancies, which currently stands at a shockingly high 50 percent. Evidence shows that the medicalization of contraception—that is, positioning physicians as gatekeepers to contraception—increases cost and decreases access. In evaluating what contributes to unplanned pregnancy, 54 percent of women stated cost as an obstacle to contraception use and 66 percent claimed that an inability to obtain contraception played a role.

Today there are eleven contraceptive options for women: female condom, tubal ligation, cervical cap, diaphragm, implant, injectable, IUD, patch, pill, ring, and sponge. On the whole, female methods tend to be more expensive than male methods because most require at least one physician visit and some involve a renewable prescription. Only two of the eleven female-only contraceptives—the sponge and the female condom—do not require seeing a physician. This means that 82 percent of female methods require at least one physician visit in order to acquire the contraceptive. Moreover, 36 percent of female methods require a prescription (injectable, patch, pill, and ring), which means women must continually renew their contraceptive by going to the pharmacy or doctor. Most doctors will not continue renewing prescriptions without seeing their patients yearly, so the initial visit when the doctor prescribes the contraceptive is not enough to ensure continued access to the contraceptive.   

Due to the expense of initiating and maintaining contraception, women spend 68% more out of pocket toward their reproductive health care than men of the same age. Currently 28 states mandate insurance companies to cover contraception to the same extent as they do for other prescription medications. However, 20 of these states have provisions in place for providers, plans, or employers to deny contraceptive coverage for religious or moral reasons.

Although this national initiative requiring insurance companies to cover contraception without co-pays is a big step in the right direction, it does not help the 1 in 5 women aged 15-44 (women of reproductive potential) who lack health insurance. These women are 30 percent less likely to report using prescription contraceptives than women with health insurance. This finding is not surprising given that prescription contraceptives are not only more expensive than non-prescription contraceptives, but they also involve the cost of a doctor’s visit. Yet, it is troubling because it shows that financial concerns limit women’s contraceptive choices, often leading them to rely on less effective, though cheaper, methods.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

0 comments | Topics: Bioethics and Public Policy , Doctor-Patient Relationships , Health Care Policy , Health Insurance , Patient Autonomy , Pharmaceuticals , Reproductive Medicine

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.