Birth control on the cheap
State program makes birth control free
Mom and Dad may not want to hear this, but it’s a fact of life: Freshman students away from home for the first time have more opportunities to engage in sexual activities.
And, as we know, with sex come certain risks, including pregnancy.
For that reason, birth control—easy and affordable access to contraceptives, specifically—is often at the forefront of young students’ minds.
That’s why Chico State’s Student Health Service (SHS), located diagonally across from Whitney Hall on Warner Street, has been working to increase its visibility not only regarding its services, but also and in particular regarding its adoption of Family PACT (Planning, Access, Care and Treatment), a state-funded program for low-income individuals who can’t receive Medi-Cal or don’t have insurance that covers birth control and other family-planning services. So far, it’s been a slow but steady process getting word about the program out to students, many of whom stopped relying on the SHS for birth control in recent years due to increased cost.
The SHS started the yearlong process of applying to become a Family PACT provider in 2009 at the persuasion of SHS Director Catherine Felix, who had transplanted to Chico State earlier that year from Cal State Fullerton, a Family PACT provider. At the time, the SHS pharmacy was experiencing a nosedive in demand for birth control caused by a jump in prices at the supplier level, which in turn spurred higher prices at the SHS pharmacy counter.
Felix knew the importance of making birth control available to students, and that the arduous process of applying for the program would be worthwhile, she said in a recent interview in her bright office on the second floor of the SHS building.
“What we were doing was trying to listen to feedback from the students, and we found when prices went up that students rerouted to other places like Planned Parenthood,” Felix said. “But since we are based on students, our services must be applicable and to the greatest benefit of students. [The Family PACT program] automatically takes away any student’s fear about the costs related to birth control.”
The price of oral contraceptives doubled and tripled at campuses nationwide around 2006, the result of a 2005 federal deficit-reduction bill that gave less incentive to oral-contraceptives suppliers to give discounts to colleges. At Chico State, prices went from as little as $5 up to $45 for a 30-day supply, Felix said. (Many services for students are covered by a mandatory $120-per-semester wellness fee, but prescriptions cost extra.)
The spike in prices caused students to look elsewhere to get their birth control at discounted prices or for free, at places including Planned Parenthood and Women’s Health Specialists, nonprofits with Chico locations that were already Family PACT providers.
“We found there was no demand for birth control,” Felix said, even though the SHS pharmacy charged students only what it paid for the prescriptions.
In addition to fewer discounts, the pharmacy was also seeing the effects of laws that allow a supplier to patent a new product for 10 years, making it impossible to offer a generic brand to students who were using cutting-edge methods such as Seasonique, a brand of contraceptive that causes women to have only a few periods a year, Felix said.
When Felix arrived at Chico State in 2009, students were buzzing about the high birth-control prices at the SHS, she said, and having seen the Family PACT program’s positive impact at Cal State Fullerton, Felix applied to become a provider.
Almost instantly, during the fall semester of 2009, the SHS was approved to begin accepting Family PACT cards, the same recognizable green cards many women were accustomed to presenting at other low-cost clinics.
In fall 2010, the SHS became certified to enroll individuals in the Family PACT program, a task that was handed to Lindsey Langdon, a recent graduate with a degree in health administration.
Since then, Langdon has overseen the enrollment of more than 2,400 students. The actual enrollment process for women—and men—is conducted with the help of a student employee, one of the many efforts made to create a peer-to-peer atmosphere at the SHS.
“Being with a student makes them feel more comfortable, like they can talk about their concerns regarding safe sex,” Langdon said. (The median age for Chico State students, unlike commuter schools and other universities, is around 19 to 20 years old, Felix noted).
Students enrolled in Family PACT can get condoms, spermicides and lube (goody bags are LGBTQ-friendly), and female patients can get a variety of contraceptives, including pills, injections and intrauterine devices, for free at the pharmacy. The program also helps with costs associated with annual gynecological exams, menstrual problems, HIV screenings, and education and counseling for men and women.
When it comes down to it, the SHS wants to help students prevent unintended pregnancies, which can make it difficult for the students affected to reach graduation, Felix said.
“We just want students to reach their academic goals,” Felix said. “That’s all we focus on—how to help them do that.”