Over-the-counter birth control would reduce unintended pregnancies, save money

About half of pregnancies in the U.S. are accidental, with inconsistent use and non-use of birth control being the leading causes. For some women, going to a healthcare provider to obtain a prescription stands in the way of using birth control. Making oral contraceptives available without a prescription has the potential to increase the number of women using this method and reduce gaps in use.

New research from the UCSF Bixby Center examines how non-prescription oral contraceptives might impact women's access, use and pregnancies, as well as public health costs. Using national and state data, the researchers found that if women were able to obtain oral contraceptives without a prescription as a covered health insurance benefit, there would be an 11 to 21 percent increase in the number of women using the Pill. As a result, the rate of accidental pregnancies in the U.S. would decrease by 7 to 25 percent.

The researchers also considered the public sector costs of providing oral contraceptives without a prescription and of providing medical care for unintended pregnancy. They found that the combined costs would be reduced for public health plans that chose to cover oral contraceptives without a prescription. Despite these cost savings, it is relatively uncommon for public health insurance to cover non-prescription methods of birth control.

“In the era of no-co-pay contraception, there is still a need for over-the-counter birth control to fill the gap when women run out of pills while traveling, for example, or for those who find it inconvenient to get to a clinic," study co-author Daniel Grossman said. "But to reach the largest number of women most in need, it's critical that a future [non-prescription] pill be covered by insurance.