April 24, 2008 -- Erin McKenna, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, admits that she sometimes has to choose between purchasing textbooks for school and paying for her birth-control prescription.
"I have two jobs and I still can't afford it," McKenna said.
It is the type of decision that more and more college women are facing since a provision in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 ended the practice of drug companies providing birth-control medicines to colleges at a steep discount.
Birth-control advocates call the price increase a crisis, while promoters of sexual abstinence say colleges should be stressing alternatives to contraceptives.
McKenna and a group of other college students, along with actress Amber Tamblyn, went to Washington, D.C., this week to lobby Congress for passage of a bill that would restore the discounts.
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Joseph Crowley D-N.Y. along with Sen. Claire McCaskill D-Mo., and presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., is called the Prevention Through Affordable Access Act. It has been introduced in both the Senate and House, but has yet to be passed.
Before the deficit bill passed, drug companies were allowed to provide discounted birth-control medicines in an effort to forge brand loyalty with women. But language in the act made them unable to continue the practice, which Crowley says was an unintended result of the legislation.
A Little Help From Hollywood
Tamblyn, who is starring in the forthcoming film "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2," was along to add her support.
She says she became aware of this issue from young women who wrote in on her Web site's message boards. She said the issue has been a "hot topic" since the price went up four months ago and continues to grow "exponentially."
"It just seems like a no-brainer," Tamblyn said of Congress overturning the provision in the deficit reduction act.
"Young women face many hurdles in life. To add another financial hurdle makes no sense. We should be making it easier, not harder, for young women to take control of their lives," Tamblyn said in a statement released by Planned Parenthood.
Tamblyn and the students met with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who hopes that the act will pass Congress sometime in the spring or summer.
A Contraceptive Crisis?
Some college campuses have reported drops in the number of contraceptives sold since the price increase, and other colleges have stopped stocking prescription contraceptives altogether.
Last year Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, stopped stocking most prescription contraceptives. School officials said they were too expensive.
This has presented a problem for students who rely on these methods of birth control.
Ironically the increased price was the result of a provision in the bill aimed at saving taxpayers money. The deficit act was designed, in part, to stop Medicaid rebate abuse.
College students are now paying four or five times the amount they paid for oral contraceptives several months ago. While many lawmakers say this resulting price increase was inadvertent, its effects are being felt all over the country.
McKenna says she has taken a second job to afford the pill, which went up from $12 to $52 a month on her campus after the legislation went into effect.
"My father passed away in February," McKenna said, "and that's not a burden I'm comfortable with putting on my mother right now."
University of North Dakota student Katie Ryan says she had to cut back on groceries as well as social activities in order to afford the higher-priced pills.
Some Fear Spike in Unwanted Pregnancies
According to recent data compiled by The American College Health Association, nearly 35 percent of college students reported that they or a partner used oral contraceptives to prevent pregnancy the last time they had sex.
Birth-control advocates worry the price increase could put contraceptives out of reach of some women and lead to unwanted pregnancy.
The price increase is forcing some college students to make tough choices.
University of Nevada senior None Wainwright says the price increase has "really taken a toll."
She was able to get two more months' worth of discounted contraceptives because her pharmacy had stockpiled the cheaper birth control, but when that runs out, she's not sure what she'll do.
"I'm debating what my next move will be," Wainwright said.
What About Abstinence?
But not everyone thinks providing discounted birth control to college women is a good idea.
Valerie Huber, the executive director of The National Abstinence Education Association, thinks that colleges are too focused on dispensing birth control and are not offering enough information about the risks associated with sexual activity.
"Birth control offers absolutely no protection at all against STDs," Huber said. "Any campus that offers birth-control pills should put a higher emphasis on the primary health of their students. … Just dispensing birth control as an answer to college age sexual activity, is doing a disservice to the health of those students."
Ruben Obregon, president of the advocacy group No Room for Contraception, doesn't believe that college students should be offered discounted birth control at all.
"Considering that many students have the funds to purchase alcohol and music for their iPods, why should they get discounted prices to begin with, and why should these discounts be restored?" Obregon asked. "If students have to choose between contraception and groceries, then maybe they should reexamine the reasons why they are sexually active to begin with."
Supporters Are Optimistic
"I'm hopeful and reasonably confident that we'll be able to get this done," Stabenow said. She pointed to the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as a positive sign.
Planned Parenthood believes it has the support of 30 senators and 170 congressmen on the Prevention Through Affordable Access Act. Stabenow thinks there might be muted opposition from some Republican senators but ultimately believes the act's passage is an economic necessity.
"It's incredibly unfair to take away the ability for colleges to receive donated medicines or reduced price contraception," Stabenow said. "There is no good reason to want to add costs to college students who are struggling enough to make ends meet."