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Insurance companies cover Viagra but not birth control

Published: Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Updated: Monday, August 9, 2010 14:08

Viagra has helped a lot of men overcome impotency. But it has also sparked an insurance controversy.

"Viagra, the potency drug, works wonders -- or so I've heard. It has enabled many impotent men to gain and maintain, at least for a short time, some rather big smiles," said Melvin Durai on the Web site www.melvindurai.com/viagra.htm.

But the blue, diamond-shaped pills seem to have raised more controversy than smiles, he said. Some women are blasting insurance companies for covering the cost of Viagra but not birth control. They find this unfair, especially since the men taking Viagra are creating a greater need for birth control. The site explains that paying for Viagra and not birth control seems to be telling men to have lots of sex and women to have lots of children. Though birth control does not literally make sexual intercourse possible, the way Viagra does, it is similar in that it gives women access to this activity even when they wish to avoid pregnancy. The willingness to provide coverage for Viagra but not birth control touched a nerve precisely because it seemed to capture the double standard in our society, said Sherry F. Colb, a professor at Rutgers Law School, according to findlaw.com. That is, it captured society's failure to view women's sexuality as a normal part of their lives that ought to be supported, accommodated and even celebrated, to the same extent that men's sexuality is, Colb said.

Without insurance, birth control can cost $360 per year for oral contraceptives; $180 for Depo-Provera, an injection administered every three months; $450 for Norplant, six plastic implants inserted under the skin of the upper arm; and $240 for an intrauterine device, according to www.covermypills.com, an informational site about contraceptives.

The site also states that more than 50 percent of insurance plans cover Viagra, at $10 per pill, while only about one-third cover contraceptives.

The cost for insurance companies to cover birth control would be far cheaper than the costs of all the hospital bills, prenatal fees and labor and delivery expenses associated with an unwanted pregnancy.

According to information provided by Utah State University's Women and Gender Research Institute, many insurance plans do not cover birth control pills or other contraceptive methods for women, even though pregnancy is a far greater health risk than male impotence.

The debate on Viagra and coverage of contraception is a grappling issue in Congress with contraceptive coverage for federal employees.

Provisions are requiring the government to offer in its health insurance policies all commonly prescribed forms of contraception, including birth control pills, intrauterine devices and diaphragms, according to information from the institute.

In April of 2001, Maryland became the first state to mandate coverage of prescription contraceptives in its state-employee health insurance plans, and at least 12 other states are considering the same law. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit corporation for reproductive health research, covering contraceptives would add $17.12 in employer costs and $4.28 in employee costs.

"It's really a small amount of money, and it's the law," said Linda Rosenthal, staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York. "A company should not be able to choose to provide coverage for some things and opt out of things that women need."

Rachael Freedman, a junior elementary education major, agrees. She believes insurance companies have a "stereotypical image" of masculinity and femininity if men and women do not receive equal coverage.

"It's like insurance companies covering an unnecessary cosmetic surgery, like a facelift, but not a life-saving procedure. To me it doesn't make sense," Freedman said.

Stephanie Shaffer, a student at the University of Maryland, said that if some insurers cover prescriptions to treat erectile dysfunction but don't cover the costs of contraceptives, it would be analogous to insurance companies paying to repair and load guns while simultaneously denying coverage of bulletproof vests.

Dr. Shelley Parr, a women's health physician at the University of Maryland Health Center, said she thinks "it is more important to cover hormonal contraceptives than [Viagra], but I may be impacted by the population that I am seeing. In an ideal world, both would be equally covered."

Oral contraceptives can also be used for reasons other than birth control. Parr said they can also be prescribed to treat acne and irregular or heavy menstrual periods, as well as to prevent premenstrual syndrome, fibrocystic breast condition, excessive hair growth and ovarian and uterine cancers when family history exists. Viagra is only used to treat erectile dysfunction.

USU added an oral contraceptive benefit to its employees' health package on Sept. 28, 2001.

"Not only is the law on this matter clear, but taking this action will also make us look a lot more like the peer group against which we compete," President Kermit L. Hall said in his state of the university address.

"Recruiting and retaining female faculty are among our top priorities, and the current health program is fundamentally unfair and inappropriate to those priorities."

According to university records, funding was cited as the major concern for adding the benefit, which will cost an estimated $200,000 to $216,000 annually. Proponents of the benefit point out that the financial costs of an unplanned pregnancy outweigh the cost of contraception.

--karalcam@cc.usu.edu

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