Prescription contraceptives cost more in some low-income neighborhoods than in wealthier ones, according to a small study that analyzed prescription price data from Florida.
Though the findings are preliminary, the University of Tennessee physicians who led the study said it may have implications for low-income women hoping to prevent pregnancy.
"We saw several contraceptive options that are more expensive in lower income areas, and that expense may limit access," researcher Dr. Nikki Zite, an OBGYN at The University of Tennessee Medical Center, told The Huffington Post. The findings were released Monday at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' annual clinical meeting in New Orleans.
The cost data came from MyFloridaRx.com, a website developed by the Florida attorney general and the state Agency for Health Care Administration to provide pricing information on the 150 most commonly used prescription drugs in the the state. The site provides the prices that an uninsured consumer with no federal discount or supplemental plan would typically pay, as reported monthly by pharmacies.
Researchers focused on the price of seven commonly-used contraceptives -- including various forms of the pill as well as transvaginal options like the ring. They cross-referenced the price information across various counties with median household incomes from the 2010 census.
Nearly every prescription contraceptive was more expensive in low-income zip codes, the researchers found.
In most cases, price differed by just a few dollars. For two of the contraceptives, the cost was significantly less in the wealthiest zip codes.
Researchers said they don't know the reason for the price discrepancies. Certain neighborhoods may not have a large, chain pharmacy that offers lower prices and runs specials, Zite speculated.
"There is other research that has shown that a lot of needs for health, like fruits and vegetables, are more expensive in lower-income neighborhoods," Zite added.
But Dr. Jeffrey Peipert, vice chair of clinical research at the Washington University in St. Louis Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, questioned whether the findings held any broad implications for women in other parts of the country.
"Yes, if most women went to the pharmacy and paid for prescriptions out of pocket, this would have a major impact," Peipert said. But he pointed out that uninsured consumers have access to, and regularly utilize, other options, including federally funded clinics that offer free birth control, or one that offers services on a sliding scale based on income.
However, Peipert agreed that cost is one of the biggest barriers to prescription birth control access. "We have so many barriers in the U.S., and we have rates of unintended pregnancy that are far higher than other developed countries," he said.
Peipert led the Contraceptive CHOICE Project, which counseled young women on contraceptive methods and offered the method of their choosing at no cost in order to compare what women opted for, as well as efficacy rates. When barriers were removed, 86 percent of the women were still using a long-acting contraceptive method, such as an intrauterine device one year out, as were 55 percent of women using a non long-acting method, like the pill.
"The big question is why don't we, in the U.S., level the playing field so all women can have equal access to no-cost contraception?" Peipert said. "Why should we have any inequities at all?"