Drug Makers End DiscountsLong Offered to School Clinics;Privacy vs. Parents' Insurance
College students returning to campus in a few weeks will be greeted by steep increases in one of the few items they have been able to buy cheap: birth control.
For years, drug companies sold birth-control pills and other contraceptives to university health services at a big discount. This has served as an entree to young consumers for the drug companies, and a profit center for the schools, which sell them to students at a moderate markup. Students pay perhaps $15 a month for contraceptives that otherwise can retail for $50 or more.
But colleges and universities say the drug companies have stopped offering the discounts, and are now charging the schools much more. The change has an unlikely origin: the Deficit Reduction Act signed by President Bush last year. The legislation aimed to pare $39 billion in spending on federal programs, from subsidized student loans to Medicaid. And among the changes was one that, through an arcane set of circumstances, created a disincentive for drug makers to offer school discounts.
In recent months, at Michigan State University, East Lansing, the price of Ortho Evra, a birth-control skin patch by Johnson & Johnson, more than doubled to $50 for a month's prescription from $20 last year. At the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo, a low-estrogen pill also by J&J, rose to $52 recently -- from $16 last year. The University of Texas at Austin now charges more than $50 for Organon Inc.'s popular NuvaRing, a monthly vaginal device, from $12.
Susan Maly, a 22-year-old student at the University of Iowa, says she struggled with switching pills recently. When she went to her college health center to get a refill on her Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo prescription a few months ago, she was distressed to find out that it had gone up to $54 from about $18. Starting this month, she has switched to a cheaper generic pill that has higher levels of estrogen than the Lo brand.
"That was an issue for me," says Ms. Maly, but she says she will see how things work out for a couple of months. Initially, she says she felt some heartburn side effects from the new pill, but that has since gone away. She finds the dramatic price increase "unfair" to women who have come to rely on birth control, and feel comfortable with the brand they are on.
"This is the one thing that many females on campus are getting from student health," says Ms. Maly. "It felt like we were a target."
Health professionals say it's particularly critical for college women to have access to cheap contraception. Two-thirds of college students reported having at least one sexual partner in the prior 12 months, according to a fall 2006 survey of more than 23,000 students by the American College Health Association. Condoms have been available free on many campuses, and are considered the best form of contraception for preventing sexually transmitted infections.
"Maybe, if more people switch from hormonal methods to condoms, we may see a positive outcome of fewer STI's," says Mary Hoban, a project director for the American College Health Association. "But from a contraceptive standpoint, we may see more unintended pregnancy. It's a double-edged sword."