Women’s health advocates are harshly criticizing a new bill sponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) intended to help make birth control available over the counter (OTC), calling it a cynical move that would make birth control less affordable.
“This bill is a sham and an insult to women,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement. “It would give women fewer birth control options and force women to pay twice for their birth control.”
Gardner was one of many Republican candidates in the 2014 midterm elections who campaigned on expanding “access” to birth control by making it available over the counter. Reproductive health advocates said that this was a cynical way for candidates to downplay their extreme anti-choice views on issues like anti-choice fetal “personhood,” which Gardner has supported throughout his political career.
The proposed Allowing Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act would waive the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) filing fee and expedite the application review process to encourage manufacturers of “routine-use contraceptives” to apply to the FDA for over-the-counter (OTC) status, according to Gardner’s website.
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The bill appears intended to limit the sale of OTC pills to adults ages 18 and older.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) supports over-the-counter birth control access because the hassle and expense of going to the doctor for a prescription deters some women from using birth control, and because the benefits of avoiding unwanted pregnancies outweigh the risks of not having a doctor inform women of the potential side effects.
ACOG president Dr. Mark S. DeFrancesco came out strongly against the new bill, saying that it would undermine the gains of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that have expanded access to contraception by making it available to women at no extra cost.
“Unfortunately, instead of improving access, this bill would actually make more women have to pay for their birth control, and for some women, the cost would be prohibitive,” DeFrancesco said in a statement.
The ACA’s birth control benefit only applies to contraceptives covered by insurance. The bill would allow insurance to cover the pills, according to Gardner’s statement, but that’s no guarantee that it will.
Birth control can cost up to $600 per year. As writer Katie McDonough notes at Salon, the stubbornly high cost of OTC emergency contraception suggests that market forces are unlikely to bring down the cost of birth control pills—and no market forces can compete with the “zero dollars” offered under the ACA.
“This effort is nothing but political pandering to trick women and families into thinking we are covered while dismantling one of the most critical gains in the Affordable Care Act,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement.
Only the FDA has the power to make a drug available over the counter, so all Congress can do is offer incentives. Amanda Marcotte argues on Slate that among its various problems, the Gardner/Ayotte bill probably wouldn’t offer enough incentives to change the status quo:
Even on the slim chance it passes, it doesn’t actually do anything. Drug companies that make the pill have never applied for OTC status, and there’s zero reason to think they will start now just for a minor fee waiver and a promise that their applications will be read promptly.