Senate Republicans Introduce Over-The-Counter Birth Control Bill — But We Shouldn't Celebrate Just Yet

Over-the-counter birth control sounds like a feminist dream: No prescription, no problem. More than 50 years after the birth control pill was introduced in America, you would think over-the-counter contraception would be the norm by 2015. It could potentially increase access to contraception while also cut down on some financial costs for low-income women. But the new OTC birth control bill introduced Thursday by Senate Republicans Cory Gardner and Kelly Ayotte may be not be the saving grace American women are looking for.

Gardner's new bill, which is co-sponsored by Ayotte, is already garnering some backlash from medical officials, who question if the bill will really make birth control more affordable and accessible. The full text of the bill has yet to be released, but Gardner and Ayotte said in a recent statement that it would "encourage manufacturers of routine-use contraceptives" to file an application with the FDA to sell their products over-the-counter without a prescription. But in doing so, critics of the bill believe it will eliminate insurance coverage of the birth control pill.

"This bill is a sham and an insult to women," Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards said in a statement sent to Bustle. "It would give women fewer birth control options and force women to pay twice for their birth control."

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Following the passage of the Affordable Care Act and its accompanying HHS mandate, Republicans have been touting OTC birth control as a better, more efficient, and cheaper option for American women than having birth control covered by their health insurers. In fact, OTC birth control was a common talking point among Republican candidates in the 2014 midterm elections.

In a statement released last week on his official website, Gardner, the Republican senator from Colorado, further framed OTC birth control as a way for women to take full control of their reproductive choices when discussing his latest bill, the Allowing Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act:

It’s time to allow women the ability to make their own decisions about safe, effective, and long-established methods of contraception. Making this medication available over the counter would increase access in rural and under-served areas, save consumers money by increasing competition and availability, and save women time by increasing the ease of getting the safe contraception they need.

Yet many doctors and reproductive health advocates are wary of the Republican Party's new plan, particularly because it's often introduced in tandem with a repeal of the ACA and its HHS mandate — and an end to no-copay contraception. Even without a repeal of the ACA, reproductive health advocates say the bill erase insurance-coverage of birth control, because the health care act only covers birth control medication that requires a prescription. A push for "routine-use" contraception sold over-the-counter would mean women would have to pay for the medication entirely out of pocket.

So, there's the catch — buy your birth control pill as easily as you can buy your Claritin, yet expect to shell out some bucks. Without insurance-covered contraception, a woman could end up paying $600 out of pocket for birth control each year, according to research from Planned Parenthood.

"[The politicians who introduced this bill] aren’t interested in expanding women’s access to birth control, and their bill would actually restrict women’s choices and cost women more money," Richards said.

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The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also came out against the bill last week. Mark S. DeFrancesco, M.D., who serves as the organization's president, said in a statement:

The Affordable Care Act removed many barriers to preventive care that keeps women healthy. By making contraceptives available to women without a co-pay, it has truly increased access to contraception, thereby decreasing unintended pregnancies, and allowing women to better plan their futures. Unfortunately, instead of improving access, this bill would actually make more women have to pay for their birth control, and for some women, the cost would be prohibitive. ... We would welcome any legislation that would do what this proposal purports to do – help women. As it stands, however, we cannot support a plan that creates one route to access at the expense of another, more helpful route.

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