On The Economics of the Pill (2)

In an article for Bloomberg News, Virginia Postrel asks why certain types of oral contraceptive require a prescription. Here is an extract:

Requiring a prescription “acts more as a barrier to access rather than providing medically necessary supervision,” argues Daniel Grossman of Ibis Reproductive Health, a research and advocacy group based in Massachusetts, in an article published in September in Expert Review of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Birth-control pills can have side effects, of course, but so can such over-the-counter drugs as antihistamines, ibuprofen or… Aleve. That’s why even the most common over-the-counter drugs, including aspirin, carry warning labels. Most women aren’t at risk from oral contraceptives, however, just as most patients aren’t at risk from aspirin or Benadryl, and studies suggest that a patient checklist can catch most potential problems.

To further increase safety, over-the-counter sales could start with a progestin-only formulation, sometimes called the “minipill,” rather than the more-common combinations of progestin and estrogen…Progestin-only pills, or POPs, have fewer contraindications. Unlike combination pills, they’re OK for women with hypertension, for instance, or smokers over the age of 35. The main dangers are fairly rare conditions such as breast cancer or current liver disease. “Not only are POP contraindications rare, but women appear to be able to accurately identify them using a simple checklist without the aid of a clinician,” declares an article forthcoming in the journal Contraception.

Aside from safety, the biggest argument for keeping birth- control pills prescription-only is, to put it bluntly, extortion. The current arrangement forces women to go to the doctor at least once a year, usually submitting to a pelvic exam, if they want this extremely reliable form of contraception. That demand may suit doctors’ paternalist instincts and financial interests, but it doesn’t serve patients’ needs. As the 1993 article’s authors noted, the exam requirement “assumes that it would be worse for a woman’s health to miss out on routine care than it would be to miss out on taking oral contraceptives.”

And let’s not forget how these requirements fit in with the even more interfering instincts of the nanny state.

The consequences are predictably malign:

Going to the doctor is costly in time, money and sometimes in dignity. Not surprisingly, the prescription requirement deters use of oral contraceptives. In a 2004 phone survey, 68 percent of American women said they would start the pill or another form of hormonal birth control, such as the patch, if they could buy it in a pharmacy with screening by a pharmacist instead of getting a doctor’s prescription. Two-thirds of blacks and slightly more than half of whites and Latinas surveyed said they chose their current, less-effective method of birth control because it didn’t require a prescription.

If you think that the costs involved in all this are incurred solely by those looking to get obtain oral contraceptives, you are a very trusting soul.

And, as I discuss in a different context over on the Corner (the availability of the emergency anti-allergy EpiPen), unnecessary insistence on prescriptions is not confined to contraceptives.

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4 Responses to On The Economics of the Pill (2)

  1. Jeeves says:

    I am allergic to bee stings and to an as yet unidentified food additive (making my allergic reaction unpredictable and unavoidable).

    The bee sting allergy is cumulative, and the next one I get will be worse than the last. Ditto for the food additive allergy, which, when it last occurred, required a visit to the ER to prevent anaphylactic shock. I was treated with heavy doses of antihistamines but not epinephrine because the ER doc didn’t have my chart and was apparently lawsuit-averse.

    I now carry an EpiPen, which of course I couldn’t get without a doctor’s script–which has to be renewed through the doctor when the drug passes its expiration date. So…you’re leaving on a trip and suddenly you notice your EpiPen has expired. It’s a Saturday. Thank you nanny state.

  2. RandyB says:

    It used to be a major part of the debate about health insurance, that by insuring major costs but not routine ones, was creating a moral hazard to incentivize ignoring the latter. Like the urban impoverished would use ambulances and emergency rooms, but not for-profit clinics.

    The debate about whether we SHOULD pay for women’s birth control, should be part of a larger discussion about the coverage of routine preventive care, as well as creating incentives for other healthy practices.

  3. JamesG says:

    As far as I know no OTC medicines are covered by insurance policies.

    The recent Fluke Flap would have been avoided if she could buy them the way she buys aspirin or Life Savers.

  4. Jokah Macpherson says:

    I wonder if this is a major contributor to the widely documented phenomenon of women being more likely to visit a doctor than men.

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