A record scratch sounded in my head one weeknight this January, when a pharmacist at my local drugstore told me my birth control pills would—for the first time—cost more than $50 a month.
Strange, I thought, since I could have sworn I heard contraception was one of the preventive health services that are free under the Affordable Care Act, and that the law was rapidly expanding access for most women, with at least 67% of insured women on the pill paying $0 (up from only 15% in 2012), according to a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute. Perplexing.
After all, I don't work for an exempted religious organization or a company such as Hobby Lobby, which in a Supreme Court case last year won the right to deny contraceptive coverage because of conflicting beliefs. And the same pills—Ortho Tri-cyclen Lo—cost me nothing under my old health plan. Sure, I had switched insurance companies in the new year (to Aetna, the third largest in the country), but I'd opted for a high-premium Gold plan. A monthly copay on par with the cost of an iPod shuffle seemed hefty and unfair.
So I left the pharmacy empty handed and went home to call Aetna.
My happiness was brief when a customer service agent informed me that—while most brand-name pills had a copay—I could simply switch to a free generic version of the same compound. The problem? Turns out there is no generic version of Ortho Tri-cyclen Lo yet. So I was trapped, much like women whose insurance companies have denied them coverage for the NuvaRing, reasoning that they can take generic pills with the same hormones—even though the Department of Health and Human Services has been clear that the ring is a distinct form of contraception (and should therefore be free).
I hesitated to simply choose a different generic for a reason that should not surprise the many other women who have tried multiple birth control methods: Switching from pill to pill in the past caused me side effects, which thankfully subsided once I finally found one that worked for me.
"People respond differently to different pills and a change can cause side effects like irregular bleeding and headaches," says Jill Rabin, an ob-gyn and professor at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. "There's no predicting how someone will do unless they try it."
The pressure I felt to switch seemed especially unjust given this aspect of the law: While women can be charged a copay for brand name drugs when an equivalent generic is available, this Department of Labor FAQ explains, "if, however, a generic version is not available, or would not be medically appropriate for the patient" as determined by her doctor, "then a plan or issuer must provide coverage for the brand name drug ... without cost-sharing."
When I brought my dilemma (and the fact that I was a journalist planning to write about it) to Aetna's director of communications, Susan Millerick, she took swift action. Within a week, I had my Ortho Tri-cyclen Lo, free of copay.
"It is always Aetna’s intent to abide by the laws that govern our health benefits coverage, and to fairly interpret and apply all laws and regulatory guidance on behalf of our customers and members," Millerick wrote in an email.
Millerick's explanation for what had happened suggests any woman would be wise to question any insurer denial for contraceptive; she said Aetna's "service reps erred" in not telling me about the option to appeal the copay. I should have been told that I could just ask my doctor to call and verify that I really needed my pill and that a different generic would not suffice.
The good news for many women is that simply being informed of your options—and getting your doctor on your side—may be enough to go from paying a wallet-draining copay to nothing at all, says Rabin.
"Figuring out the best contraception that minimizes cost and maximizes efficacy is a conversation that should be between doctor and patient," Rabin says. "Most doctors don't want that decision taken out of their hands and would be happy to help make that call for their patients."
For those women who encounter more resistance than I did—or find, as Kaiser Health News reported, that certain insurers are even trying to wriggle out of covering generics—there are other resources to turn to, like the National Women's Law Center. Their website has clear instructions on how to fight back if you think your insurer is unfairly denying you free birth control, with templates for appeal letters and a free hotline (866-745-5487) for additional assistance.
Even with all the progress, thousands of women have been contacting the NWLC's hotline in recent months after running into problems getting free contraceptives, says Mara Gandal-Powers, a lawyer at the NWLC.
Generally, the biggest obstacle to free birth control access right now is ignorance, she says. Many women—and their insurance representatives, doctors, and pharmacists—aren't on the same page about whether their particular contraception should have a copay or not. Instead of doing a double take at the cost of their contraceptives, Gandal-Powers says, some women never question the charge.
That's a compelling reason to double check your insurer, pharmacist, and even doctor's assumptions.
"There is definitely a lot of education that still needs to happen," says Gandal-Powers, "not just among women themselves but also among health care providers and pharmacists."
Beyond a lack of education, a few more obstacles to universally free birth control remain. Besides the religious exemption, there's also a subset of insurance plans that are "grandfathered" in such a way that they don't have to cover contraception right away—though they will in coming years. Enrollment in grandfathered plans is dropping, with only 26% of covered workers enrolled in a grandfathered health plan in 2014, down from 56% in 2011, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Another exception is self-funded student plans.
The takeaway? If you're paying more than $0 for birth control, it can't hurt to do a little digging. If you are lucky (and persistent), you could end up pushing your insurer to better comply with the law—and save hundreds of dollars a year, to boot.