Medical Examiner

Goodbye, 1,800-Fold Price Hike

Ortho-McNeil, maker of the birth-control pill, shows some mercy.

Last week, I wrote for Slate about a drastic increase in the price of birth-control pills that affected thousands of publicly funded family-planning clinics across the country. Ortho-McNeil, a major supplier of the pill, had raised the price of some birth-control pills 1,800-fold with virtually no warning. Overnight, some pills that used to cost publicly funded clinics as little as a penny a pack went up to more than $18 a pack. The clinics, already on shoestring budgets, were in a panic. By last week, some sites were running out of popular pills and scaling back on the contraceptive choices offered to women. Many anticipated reducing their hours of operation or even closing some locations in order to absorb the Ortho price hike. The rest of the national media had ignored the story, though the company gave no real explanation of its decision. Clinic representatives described Ortho’s stance on the pill prices as unyielding.

Now, however, I’m happy to report that Ortho has changed its mind. The company says it will roll back the price hike because of “additional information provided to us from numerous public health service agencies indicating that [Ortho] has been relied upon as the primary source for subsidizing contraceptives to underprivileged women.” It’s not clear what that new information is, but whatever.

Ortho won’t confirm what the new prices will be for eligible clinics—for the most part, those that receive funding from the federal government’s Title X program. But the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, which led negotiations on behalf of the clinics, says that Ortho will reduce the price of five key birth-control pills to $3.20 per pack. A spokeswoman for Ortho promises that the company will be the “lowest cost provider of oral contraceptives to the public health services.”

Women’s health advocates are surprised and pleased to hear it. “This really means a difference to millions of women who will be able to be served,” says Judith DeSarno, president and CEO of NFPRHA. The government has long skimped on Title X, the federal program dedicated to family planning, so low prices for birth control are key for the clinics. DeSarno’s organization plans to reach out more aggressively to the manufacturers of generic birth-control pills, in hopes of negotiating for comparably low prices and providing more choices for poor women. That would ease the clinics’ dependence on Ortho—a good idea in the long run. For the moment, though, it’s sigh-of-relief time.