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Thousands in B.C. getting free contraception, providing 'hope for reproductive justice'

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Roughly 166,000 people in B.C. didn’t pay a dime for their prescription contraception between April 1 and Sept. 30. Health ministry data obtained by CTV News shows the majority of people using B.C.’s free prescription contraception program are in their 20s.

“Young women are getting a break on something that used to cost them and now it doesn’t,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix.

In the program’s first six months, roughly 73,900 people aged 20 to 29 got free prescription contraception. Roughly 26,700 people under the age of 20 took advantage of the program, which is the first of its kind in Canada.

“B.C. has become a beacon of hope for reproductive justice in Canada,” said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, co-founder of Access BC, a campaign that advocated for free contraception.

Birth control pills were most popular, with 113,200 prescriptions doled out between April 1 and Sept. 30. Roughly 30,400 emergency pills, 20,400 hormonal intrauterine devices (IUDs), 6,800 hormonal injections, 3,200 copper IUDs and 2,900 implants were prescribed during the same timeframe.

“With this program, it gave me the opportunity to pick one that actually did work for me rather than what was in my budget,” said Shylo Peterson, who got an IUD from her family doctor in Courtenay.

“It would’ve cost me $386.33 out of pocket if I didn’t have any benefits.”

Peterson said she used to take birth control pills, which took a toll on her mentally and physically.

“If I didn’t have that [free IUD] option, then I’m either choosing not to take birth control or I’m taking something that will make it harder for me to get through my daily life,” she said.

PHARMACISTS SIGNING SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF PRESCRIPTIONS

From April to October, B.C. doctors doled out roughly 125,000 contraception prescriptions, while nurses and midwives handed out 11,000, the health ministry said.

Pharmacists got contraception-prescribing powers on June 1. Between then and Sept. 30, they prescribed birth control to roughly 48,000 people.

“That’s taking pressure off our healthcare system while allowing people to exercise reproductive autonomy,” Phelps Bondaroff said.

Kim Myer, a pharmacist in Victoria, said most people come in for prescription renewals.

“There are a lot of people who don’t have a doctor [and] they’re not able to get into a walk-in clinic,” she said.

“So it just is easy for them to be able to come in [to the pharmacy] and get a prescription for something they’ve been taking for a long period of time.”

BARRIERS REMAIN

Eliminating cost improves access to contraception significantly, but doctors and advocates say other barriers remain.

“A free IUD in a box is not going to prevent any pregnancies,” said Dr. Renee Hall, co-medical director at the Willow Clinic in Vancouver.

Hall trains other physicians on IUD insertion. She said many patients wait weeks to get an IUD because there’s no financial incentive for doctors to perform the procedure.

“The remuneration fee for IUD insertion… is so poor that it started to become not worth it,” she said. “It’s a lot of trouble if you don’t do it very often.”

Physicians paid under B.C.’s fee-for-service model make $46.79 for the procedure. The health ministry said work is underway to improve compensation for IUD insertions.

'THE REST OF THE COUNTRY WILL FOLLOW'

Over the next three years, the province is putting more than $119 million into the free contraception program.

Dix said his ministry will analyze improved health outcomes and cost savings, such as those connected to unplanned pregnancies.

“This will be a significantly studied venture, but obviously we’re too early to see some of the long-term effects,” he said.

He hopes the program’s success inspires other provinces to follow suit.

“I believe that B.C. has taken a step here and the rest of the country will follow,” he said.

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