Analysis Contraception

Why ‘Free Birth Control’ Is Not Free

Jodi Jacobson

Many reporters and columnists have consistently used the word "free" when describing the new preventive health- care benefits for women under the Affordable Care Act. While these benefits are critical to women's health, public health, and the economic health of our country, they are not "free."

Yesterday, August 1, 2012, was a momentous day for women, marking the official beginning of a process of ensuring that millions of women across the United States will—finally—have access to a full range of preventive health-care services without a co-pay.

These include a wide range of services and interventions identified by the Institutes of Medicine as essential to women’s health and well-being, including breastfeeding support, supplies, and counseling; screening and counseling for interpersonal and domestic violence; screening for gestational diabetes; DNA testing for high-risk strains of HPV; counseling regarding sexually transmitted infections, including HIV; screening for HIV; contraceptive methods and counseling; and well-woman visits. Likewise, the ACA also ensures that plans must cover an array of services, vaccinations, and interventions, including those specifically needed by women, infants, children, and adolescents at different points in their lifecycle.

Unquestionably, due to the efforts of religious and political fundamentalists at the state and federal level to deny women access to reproductive health care of virtually every kind, the benefit that has gotten the most media attention is the one involving contraception without a co-pay. Many media outlets (see ABC, NBC, Grist, Shape.com) and some columnists, including our colleague Amanda Marcotte, have described the new birth control benefit as making contraception “free,” most frequently, for example, stating that now women will have access to birth control for free.

This is not the case, and it is misleading—and politically dangerous—to say so.

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To get birth control without a co-pay means you have an insurance policy. No one can walk into any pharmacy today and get the pill without a prescription, which in any case first entails a visit to a doctor’s office. No one without insurance can walk into a doctor’s office and get an IUD for for free, nor any kind of contraception, unless they pay out of pocket or meet the means test for and are covered by Medicaid, an increasingly difficult enterprise in itself but the subject of a different article. Ten percent of women in the United States who work full time are currently uninsured and without coverage, they do not have access to “free” birth control. Nor do other women without insurance, or those whose plans are, for logistical reasons or because they were grand-fathered, not yet compliant with the ACA on preventive care. None of these women have “free” birth control now, and they will not later even if they get insurance. (See the National Women’s Law Center Guide on what to do if you have questions about your insurance plan and contraception without co-pay.)

Why? Because if you have insurance, you pay for it, either by virtue of your labor or out of your own pocket, or, depending on the situation, both. And under the ACA, it is now mandated that your insurance plan cover certain benefits without a co-pay. This does not make them “free.” It means that you are paying for that service as part of your premium. You earned it, you paid for it, it is yours. If you pay for it, you deserve to get it.

My first “real job” after college came with health insurance benefits. I worked very hard in that job, and by extension for those benefits. I earned them through my work in the very same way I earned a matching benefit for my retirement account, the vacation time I got, my life and disability insurance, and the Social Security earnings paid to the government. None of these were a gift. I earned them.

Throughout my career, I have been employed in positions where my health insurance was either fully or partially covered by my employer; in the latter case, the employer share was part of my compensation package (and when I was hired, this was explicitly made clear) and I paid a portion of the insurance premium out of my salary. I was fortunate during much of that time in that I also earned generous health benefits for my children. More recently, I was self-employed for three years, and I paid my insurance premiums in full, out of my pocket, at considerable cost. And I earned every single penny I spent on health insurance and therefore every benefit I got from it.

Under the terms of various of my prior health policies, various medical services, such as well-baby and well-child exams, were covered without a co-pay and did not require me to meet a deductible. Other things, such as our endless visits for my kids’ ear infections, laboratory work, dental care, medical tests, and some doctors visits required co-pays, generally in the range of $15.00 to $50.00 a visit for the simple kinds, and more for the more complicated kinds. I was also often required me to meet a deductible before I could be reimbursed for certain other costs. Prescriptions for me and my kids have invariably cost from $5.00 to $50.00 in co-pays, which, though seemingly small amounts, really begin to add up, especially if you have kids or illness or both.

But those well-baby exams were not “free.” I paid for them with my premium. My insurance premium–paid for and earned by me, and pooled with hundreds of thousands or millions of other people–paid to cover those services. This is a basic principle of health economics and comes down to the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Insurance companies don’t make huge profits for nothing. They know that offering certain kinds of preventive care and making that care more accessible to more people means that a small investment in the short-term will keep costs lower in the long term. An early abnormal pap smear leading to early treatment is a lot less expensive for them than is treatment for cervical cancer later on (and quite obviously better for the woman in question). An unwanted pregnancy averted through use of contraception is less expensive than an abortion. And so on.

What the Affordable Care Act does is help to begin making our insurance poilcies and premiums more equitable. As Jessica Arons points out in a comprehensive article, fewer working women than working men in this country have employer-based insurance; insurers have historically charged women more than men in a practice known as gender-rating; and for a very long time, women have paid more out-of-pocket for basic preventive health-care services like pap smears and birth control.

The goals of the women’s health provisions in the Affordable Care Act were to begin addressing these disparities, by making women’s access to health care more equitable, and by dramatically reducing the higher costs women pay just because they are women. These changes unquestionably benefit women. But let’s face it, while these are all great things, the reason that lawmakers and insurance companies did this has to do largely with the cost-savings that will be realized: healthier women mean a healthier society and reduced economic and social costs.

Claiming that the services for which women are covered by virtue of their labor and their earnings are “free” feeds into a narrative persistently cultivated by the far right that taxpayers and the government are footing the bill to expand services “for free” to people who did not earn these. It simply is not true.

I fully support expanding government-funded programs to ensure that all women–those living in poverty, low-income women, and the working poor–have access to birth control and other preventive health services, because it makes sense in terms of public health and the economy, and because such access is a basic human right. But people who earn their insurance coverage pay for it, and they deserve the benefit for which they are paying. Moreover, even those who are eligible for government-subsidized access to care—whether reproductive health care or other kinds of care—also are paying at least a share of those costs through their tax contributions. No one is really getting anything here “for free.”

It is notable that the Obama Administration, which has been widely criticized for not doing enough to advertise or explain the many benefits in the Affordable Care Act, does not refer to the birth control benefit as “free contraception.”

Let’s call the birth control benefit what it is: Women’s hard-earned insurance coverage.

It’s ours. We earned it. We pay for it. We deserve it.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.