Last month, the Republican-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that, if passed by Congress, would give free birth control to all members of the military and their dependents. Currently, women in the military are only granted this benefit while on active duty. The new amendment expands access to those in the National Guard and military reserves, as well as their dependents. If the National Defense Authorization Act passes with this amendment intact, women in the military and their dependents will still have access to birth control even if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.
The amendment is sponsored by Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who in a press release stated, “The women who serve in our military, and the dependents of our service members, deserve the same level of healthcare coverage and care as the civilians they fight to protect. I’m glad this legislation includes my amendment to ensure all non-active service members and their dependents have birth control coverage without cost sharing. Access to basic preventive health care like contraception is critical to promote both military readiness and quality of life.”
The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act might not do enough to solve the problem. Though it will provide health resources for more people, the resources currently provided for those in active duty are not thorough enough.
Many women in the military rely on birth control measures to suppress periods, which can be inconvenient, messy, and painful during deployment. They can also be embarrassing to manage in spaces where there are often few or no other women. Additionally, unplanned pregnancies are 63% more likely for women in the military than civilian women.
Healthcare for armed-service members is provided by Tricare, which does offer contraceptive services, but not all methods are provided. One of the greatest obstacles comes when supplies need to be refilled. While the average length of a deployment is 12 months, Tricare only provides service members with a three-month supply of birth control. Since troops are often stationed in isolated areas, prescription refills can be out of reach.
A 2013 study by Daniel Grossman of the University of California San Francisco found that 41% of those who needed birth control refills while deployed found them difficult to obtain. Another 2011 study found that only 79% of soldiers who needed birth control were unable to access it for the entirety of their deployment. Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARCs), such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants, are underused in the military, possibly because of outdated notions of the health risks LARCs can cause. Grossman claims this may also be because the military does not provide enough information about how to deal with periods or contraceptives during deployment. The lack of research and information published by the DOD on this issue is reflective of this discrepancy.
Another bill titled “Access to Contraception for Women Service Members and Dependents Act” was introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California in the House of Representatives in 2015, and in the Senate in 2017, yet neither iteration succeeded.
The DOD currently covers health costs for active and retired service members and their dependents for erectile dysfunction. Since 2011, the DOD has spent $294 million on drugs like Viagra, Cialis and Levitra.
Sources: Center for American Progress 02/04/15; CBS News 02/20/15; Congress.gov 08/13/2015, 05/23/17; The Huffington Post 05/02/17; The Atlantic 02/23/17; Buzzfeed News 06/28/17; Jeanne Shaheen Press Releases 06/28/17