W. Virginia: Ortho-McNeil price hike puts contraceptives beyond reach of low income & student women Print E-mail
West Virginia -- Tuesday 15 August 2006

State clinics running low on birth control supplies

By Morgan Kelly
Staff writer

Family planning clinics in West Virginia can weather for now the drought of birth control pills and patches with their in-house stocks, but some nurses and administrators say their clinics can only hold on for the next month or so.

Some clinics serve as a county's only source of free contraceptives to low-income men and women. And clinics in Monongalia County face a rush of students when classes at West Virginia University start next week.

"As of now, we're OK for another month, but when we place the next order, it's anybody's guess," said Connie Mollohan, the nurse at the Braxton County Health Department in Sutton, that county's only family planning clinic.

The Braxton health department receives birth control through West Virginia Family Planning, a state agency that provides free birth control through independent clinics in the state.

The bulk of the agency's supply took a hit July 1 after top supplier Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceuticals Inc. drastically raised the prices for its products without warning. In some cases, birth-control pills that had cost a penny for a 30-day supply jumped to more than $20.

The prices forced West Virginia Family Planning and many similar agencies across the country to stop buying Ortho-McNeil's products, leaving clinics low on birth control.

The company says the price increase reflects federal pricing formulas, but family planning advocates say Ortho-McNeil can make the price as low as it likes.

West Virginia Family Planning relied on Ortho-McNeil for 75 percent of its birth-control pill supply. The company also is the only manufacturer of the birth-control patch and thus the sole provider to West Virginia and other states.

As of Monday, West Virginia Family Planning had only 600 patches left and was completely out of four types of birth-control pills, according to program Director Denise Smith. Condoms and birth-control shots were not affected by the price increase.

"When we can't supply birth control to our population, it definitely would be" a crisis, said Barbara Cooper, the clinic nurse at the Minnie Hamilton Clinic in Calhoun County, the county's only clinic associated with the Family Planning agency.

Several West Virginia counties have only one only clinic aligned with the Family Planning program. These counties include Mason, Summers and Wood, according to the state Family Planning Web site.

Kanawha County has six family planning centers for the public, with one for Job Corps students and another in Institute for West Virginia State University students.

People who qualify for free contraceptives can go to any clinic in the state, but that's not always an option for low-income people, especially in rural areas, Smith said. "People have limited access to places they can go and places they can get to," she said.

The Minnie Hamilton clinic has enough birth control to last a few months, Cooper said. But with state officials unsure of how to replace the shortfall, clinic health providers and patients worry.

"We're as much in the dark as they are," Cooper said of inquisitive patients. "It's a very big concern of ours because we don't know what's going to happen."

The Monongalia County health department began rationing out birth control in three-month supplies, said Shelley Martin, the department's spokeswoman.

The department is full even when school is out, she said. Daily visits jump when students return; a survey found that in a three-month span, 37 percent of the department's patients were WVU students, Martin said.

The department saw a total of 4,900 patients in the last fiscal year, she said.

"It's definitely a concern for us because we have a large student population," she said. "We've never been in this situation before."

Patients will be urged to try different birth-control products or receive prescriptions should the department's supply of Ortho-McNeil products run out, Martin said.

A prescription means people will have to pay for the birth control themselves, but like people with low incomes, many students cannot spring for the cost either, said Dr. Jan Palmer, director of WVU student health services.

The health service's in-house stock is normal and no ration is in place, but the absence of a state supply could lead to one, he said. The students-only clinic also will write prescriptions and switch people over to non-Ortho-McNeil products if supplies run out, he said.

"During the school year there's continual need," Palmer said, adding that about 60 to 70 patients come in each week wanting contraceptives during the school year.

"In the summer we don't have as much demand, but it will be increasing dramatically within the week."

To contact staff writer Morgan Kelly, use e-mail or call 348-1254.