Thanks to its contraceptive coverage requirement, Obamacare has dramatically cut back on the amount that women with health insurance need to pay for their birth control. Now, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) is ready to take it one step further. Murray has introduced a bill called the Affordability Is Access Act that has the potential to completely revolutionize the way that women access contraception.
Brought to the floor on Tuesday afternoon, Murry’s legislation proposes making oral birth control available on an over-the-counter, non-prescriptive basis, and with absolute coverage through government and private insurance.
Right now, women who want to obtain birth control pills need to make an appointment with a doctor to get a prescription for the medication. Then, they need to make a separate trip to the pharmacy to fill that prescription. The system has been criticized for being outdated and burdensome. The majority of other countries around the world already offer birth control pills over the counter.
“I believe strongly that women should be able to get the comprehensive health care they need, when they need it — without being charged extra, without asking permission, and without politicians interfering,” said Murray in a press release released on Tuesday.
When proposing the bill, Murray and supporters pointed out that the pill is equally safe, if not more so, than many other medications currently available on a prescription-free basis. Murray also emphasized that the FDA will be a key player in this shift, allowing for significant health and quality control oversight.
“We know that over-the-counter birth control is safe,” Dr. Nancy Stanwood, the board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, said a press release applauding Murray for introducing the Affordability Is Access Act.
The push for OTC birth control has gained significant support from Republicans over the last year. Murray’s bill follows last month’s proposal from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) to make oral birth control prescription-free and available through a pharmacy.
However, Gardner’s bill received some criticism for failing to mandate full insurance coverage for over the counter (OTC) birth control. Without an insurance guarantee, Democratic lawmakers and reproductive rights advocates worry that OTC birth control would actually be less affordable for the 47 million women who are able to access the pill cost-free under the Affordable Care Act. Murray and other reproductive rights advocates — including bill cosignatories Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) — see that as a step backwards for contraceptive availability.
“It’s like offering someone a single shoe,” Murray said in reference to proposals to expand access to OTC birth control without ensuring insurance coverage. “You need a pair.”
In general, Democrats and reproductive rights supporters have voiced skepticism over this fairly sudden shift in Republican contraceptive ideology. Health professionals and advocates have warned GOP politicians against endorsing the shift to over-the-counter pills as a sudden fix for birth control availability. Many advocates recommend further support for Obamacare and Medicaid, considering the key role they currently play in contraceptive availability, in tandem with backing OTC contraception.
“If Cory Gardner and others were serious about expanding access to birth control, they wouldn’t be trying to repeal the no-copay birth control benefit, reduce Title X funding for birth control, or cut women off from Planned Parenthood’s preventive health services,” said Dawn Laguens, the Executive Vice President for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a press release last year.
In 2010, publicly funded family planning services including federally funded birth control programs helped women avoid 2.2 million unplanned pregnancies, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Match this information with the fact that 11.4 percent of women have identified an accessibility issue, such as scheduling or transportation, as preventing them from seeking timely reproductive health care, and it becomes clear why health advocates in both parties have rallied behind the OTC birth control movement.
“In a nation where nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned, far too many American women are facing an uphill battle in trying to control their fertility and plan their families,” Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement this week. “Senator Murray’s bill is a common sense solution that would jumpstart the conversation around dramatically broadening over-the-counter access to contraceptives for all women, regardless of age or income.”
Katelyn Harrop is an intern with ThinkProgress under the Center for American Progress Action Fund.