WASHINGTON — Jen Mayekawa temporarily stopped using birth control last spring when she discovered that the cost had more than quadrupled, from $11 to $49 per month.
"There really was no choice," said Mayekawa, 21, a senior majoring in Spanish and pre-nursing at Kansas State University. "I wasn't about to spend $150 just to get me through the summer."
With the cost of contraception skyrocketing on college campuses throughout the country, the price of the pill is suddenly big talk on Capitol Hill. And Congress, which apparently caused the jump in prices with a legislative error, is under growing pressure to intervene.
Birth-control advocates are calling it a crisis: Packets of birth-control pills that once cost $5 to $10 for a monthly supply are now selling for $40 to $50. Officials at Planned Parenthood say the higher prices are putting birth control out of reach for many financially strapped students, and they want Congress to make the issue a top priority.
The soaring prices are the result of a quirk in a new federal law that was aimed at saving taxpayers money.
Since 1990, Congress had allowed pharmaceutical companies to offer discounted drugs to college students and low-income people. But when Congress passed its deficit-reduction bill in 2005, it included a provision that disallowed university health clinics from getting access to the reduced-price drugs.
"Our prices have doubled and tripled," said Mark Brown-Barnett, the director of the Lafene Health Center at Kansas State University for the past seven years. "And the hard part is that probably about 40 percent of our students are uninsured."
In Washington, Planned Parenthood has found a sympathetic ear from Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. They've teamed up on a bill that would reverse the 2005 provision, hoping to bring back discounted prices to college campuses. A similar bill is pending in the House of Representatives.
"Abortion has been such a divisive issue in American politics, but there is one thing that everyone agrees on, and that is we want to have fewer of them," McCaskill said. "And if we all want to have fewer of them, then it seems to me that we ought to put this at the top of the agenda. Because clearly, providing contraceptives to women should be an easy way to reduce the number of abortions in this country."
Obama and McCaskill said the change was the result of a legislative error that Congress never intended. When the bill was introduced in November, Obama said that "no woman should be turned away from university clinics and health centers because the cost of prescription drugs is out of reach." And he noted that the bill wouldn't cost anything, only restore the ability of drug manufacturers to offer discounted drugs.
"Allowing drug companies to give away drugs at a cheaper price is something we should be encouraging everywhere," McCaskill said.
So far, the proposed change hasn't attracted any organized opposition. The Washington-based National Right to Life Committee, which represents more than 3,000 chapters in all 50 states, hasn't taken a position on the legislation, said Douglas Johnson, the group's legislative director. And McCaskill said she hadn't encountered any opponents.
"I don't think there is significant opposition because it's a technical fix," she said. "If they call, I'd say, hey, this is one we ought to agree on. We're not talking about providing birth control in grade school, for gosh sakes. We're talking about women who are old enough to lose their lives for us in Iraq."