The Obama Administration’s New Plan B Policy Is Still Catering To Big Pharma

Teva Pharmaceuticals

After a long and contentious legal battle, the Obama administration announced Monday it would allow women of all ages to buy Plan B One Step, the most popular emergency contraception pill, without a prescription. Women’s health advocates celebrated the decision, which reverses the administration’s scientifically unjustified restrictions on the so-called morning-after pill for women under 17.

But even after removing age restrictions, women may still face steep costs for the pill if the administration ignores the court order that required it to open access to all emergency contraception pills, not just the Plan B One Step brand. If the FDA decides to clear only brand-name Plan B but keep the cheaper generic versions behind the counter, the morning-after pill may become even more expensive than it already is.

U.S. District Judge Edward Korman ordered the FDA to approve all levonogestrel-based emergency contraceptives for over the counter use in April. Instead, the Obama administration chose to lower the age restriction on Plan B One Step from 17 to 15-years-old. This effectively made Plan B One Step the only morning-after pill available over the counter for 15 to 17-year-old girls. Korman attacked the move as a “sweetheart arrangement” with Teva Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Plan B.

The judge observed that the Obama administration’s arbitrary compromise would benefit Teva immensely: “A consumer looking for an emergency contraceptive would only find Plan B One-Step on the shelves, and if she came in after the pharmacy counter was closed, her only option would be Plan B One-Step.”

Under this agreement, the price of the pill could reach $60 or even higher. Generic versions, which may not be approved for over the counter use, tend to be much more affordable for young women, at about $30 to $40.

Teva Pharmaceuticals is well aware of this special treatment. The company even tried to intervene in the lawsuit, arguing that Plan B One Step should have marketing exclusivity over generic emergency contraceptives. Korman flatly rejected this claim.

An appeals court ordered that all two-pill contraceptives be made available over the counter last week (Teva’s original two-pill Plan B is no longer on the market, but generic versions are still available). However, the Justice Department is refusing to comply because, according to the New York Times, “it is concerned that young girls might not be able to adequately understand how to take two separate doses.”

The Obama administration’s incoherent stance on emergency contraception has remained a mystery to many women’s health advocates and medical experts. Obama has personally expressed qualms over possible health risks — but research shows the morning-after pill is safer than aspirin.

The reality is that Teva has paid well for the privileged status the company has enjoyed throughout the FDA’s ostensibly random policy changes. In 2011 and 2012, the company spent $5.74 million lobbying lawmakers. It ramped up lobbying specifically on contraception access in the past few months, spending $1.57 million in the first quarter of 2013 alone.

Korman still needs to rule whether or not the FDA’s plan to grant unrestricted status to Plan B meets his requirements. He may not be amenable to yet another “sweetheart arrangement” between the FDA and Teva Pharmaceuticals.