FOR YEARS, the makers of birth control pills have supplied them to college health services at greatly reduced prices. This allowed the college clinics to sell them to students for an affordable amount, while at the same time helping the pill makers to build brand loyalty among the young women. A 2005 federal deficit-reduction law, however, inadvertently eliminated an incentive the drug companies had for discounting the pills for colleges and other health clinics. So, the price for a month's supply has risen from an average of $7 to between $25 - the new price for name-brand pills at Lesley University in Cambridge - and $50.
Some colleges are stopping sales of the pills altogether, advising students to buy them through private health insurance. The Massachusetts College of Art in Boston used to offer the pills for free, but no longer provides them at all. Congress should act quickly to amend the 2005 law and encourage drug companies to resume the deep discounts for colleges and other clinics.
While birth control pills do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases, they are extremely effective contraceptives. According to the American College Health Association, about 38 percent of female college students use oral contraceptives. Making them less affordable to students and users of community clinics could undermine one of public health's recent advances, the decline in the teen pregnancy rate in the United States.
According to researchers from Columbia University and the Guttmacher Institute, the teen pregnancy rate declined by 24 percent between 1995 and 2002. That still leaves it much higher than rates in other industrial countries - the United Kingdom has half the US rate. But the decline in US teen pregnancy has led to reductions in both abortions and births to teenage mothers. The researchers from Columbia and Guttmacher found that while abstinence played a role in reducing teen pregnancy, improved contraceptive use was a greater factor and accounted for all the reduction among 18- and 19-year-olds.
College health clinics benefited from the discounted birth control pills, too. Many sold them at a small profit, using the proceeds to lower the cost of more expensive medications or for other purposes.
Members of Congress are considering adding an amendment restoring the incentive for discounted birth control pills to a bill that extends the current funding system for new drug approvals by the Food and Drug Administration. That system is set to expire at the end of this month, so Congress has reason to move quickly. If there is resistance to adding the contraceptive measure to the FDA bill, whose Senate and House versions already have conflicting provisions, lawmakers should find another expedient way to bring back the discounted pills.
Correction: An editorial Friday incorrectly described Lesley University's practice on birth control pills for students. Those who receive a prescription for oral contraceptives purchase the pills at a pharmacy of their choice. The cost is wholly determined by the student's health insurance plan.