The first over-the-counter birth control pill available in the U.S. has been Food and Drug Administration-approved since July, but the military’s health insurance isn’t stocking or covering it, according to a letter several senators sent to the Defense Department on Monday.
The lawmakers hope that the non-prescription pill will increase access to contraceptives for service members and their dependents.
“Studies show that requiring prescriptions for contraception can be a barrier to access due to prolonged appointment wait times, difficulty scheduling time off from work, and challenges finding childcare during medical appointment times — hurdles that are exacerbated by the nature of military service,” the letter reads. “The prescription requirement in part contributes to the lower rate of contraception use among active duty service members compared to the national population.”
Defense Department data shows that in 2018, nearly two-thirds of service members who became unintentionally pregnant were not using birth control.
Unlike many private health insurance plans, TRICARE is not subject to the Affordable Care Act. Service members and their dependents, therefore, are not entitled to copay-free contraceptives.
“The Military Health System serves approximately 1.6 million women of reproductive age, including service members, retirees and their dependents,” the letter reads. “As part of the full spectrum of reproductive health care, contraception provides individuals control over their reproductive health and family planning. Access to contraception, as well as education about it, increases readiness and improves quality of life for our service members and their families.”
Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a DoD spokesman, told Military Times that he could not confirm receipt of the letter, but said that, “as always, we will respond to Congress appropriately.”
In the wake of the overturn of Roe v. Wade, 40 percent of active duty women are stationed in a state with severely restricted access to abortions, or none at all. The Pentagon has authorized leave and reimbursements for travel expenses to go out of state, but those benefits still require approval of time off by one’s chain of command.
Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Maizie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., authored the letter, which was endorsed by 31 colleagues, including Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.
The letter requests that DoD respond by the end of the month with its plan to stock and cover over-the-counter birth control without a copay at its pharmacies, or otherwise provide a reason why it can’t support the request.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.