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A bitter pill

Activists, lawmakers want discounts back

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When UNC-Charlotte's pharmacy raised the prices of popular brands of birth control pills, the student reaction was predictably negative.

"When we first got rid of all the specialty pricing, we heard a lot of complaints," says Michelle Jernigan, a pharmacist at UNCC's Student Health Center.

The pharmacy wasn't to blame, however. Many college health centers and community-based clinics across the country have been forced to raise prices because of 2005 Deficit Reduction Act, which unintentionally ended longtime policies that allowed drug companies to offer discounts to centers and clinics.

These price increases worry women's health advocates, who fear a rise in unintended pregnancies if students and low-income women can't afford pills or forego the added expense. They're now clamoring to turn back the change, and they have widespread support in Congress.

In November Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Il, introduced bills, now in committees, to remedy the problem. The House of Representatives' bill has many co-sponsors, Democrat and Republican, including N.C.'s Reps. Brad Miller and David Price.

Charlotte-area activists are targeting Reps. Mel Watt and G.K. Butterfield, both Democrats, for their support, said Lisa Bryan of Planned Parenthood Health Systems in Charlotte. Last week, the group organized a letter-writing campaign and planned visits to local bars to gather signatures for petitions.

Price increases have affected community health centers, but so far have not touched the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Health Department. Rick Christenbury, a department spokesman, says its birth control prices are still under contract.

About 80 percent of women use birth control pills at some point in their lives. A fall 2006 report from the American College Health Association found that more than 38 percent of sexually active college women report using prescription birth control the last time they had sex.

At UNCC, most students are required to carry insurance. A school-offered plan requires only a $10 copay for many prescriptions, so the change hasn't had quite the stark effect found at other schools, Jernigan says.

Still, with a 30-day pack of the popular, low-hormone Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo pills costing $57 -- up from $18 -- the increase has hit some students hard. The cheapest pills, which have higher hormone levels an often more side effects, cost about $16 without insurance.

UNCC's student insurance only allows $500 in prescription drug costs each year, so some women do run out of pills by the school year's end, Jernigan says. "Five hundred dollars is not a lot of money."

Johnson C. Smith University, like many colleges, offers students free condoms. "Obviously, college students are poor," says Karen Butler, associate professor of health education at the university. "A lot of students are trying to work full time, pay their own tuition, go to school full time. Some of them do have kids. ... If there's any increase in anything they want, they'll be less likely to get it."

At Queens University, student health dispenses generic birth control pills for $15 a pack, a price that has remained stable in recent years, says Jill Perry, the university's interim director of the Student Health and Wellness Center.

Over time, objections at UNCC have simmered down. Jernigan, the pharmacist, likens it to sentiment concerning another common expense: "It's kind of like the gas situation," she says. "At first, everybody complains and complains and complains. But we're at a state now where it's kind of accepted. They don't complain as much."

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