No free contraception in B.C.’s 2022 budget

By Shannon Waters February 28, 2022

When the NDP promised to make prescription contraception free in October 2020, Burnaby—Lougheed MLA Katrina Chen — the minister of state for child care — framed the campaign promise as a matter of fairness. But the government seems to be in no hurry to make good on that promise, as it was not mentioned in this year’s throne speech and Budget 2022 contained no new funding for the policy.

“For too long, the cost of contraception has fallen disproportionately on the backs of women, trans and non-binary people,” Chen said during the 2020 campaign, noting condoms are cheap and sometimes free and vasectomies are covered under B.C.’s Medical Services Plan.

“It’s time to make contraception free for all.”

The NDP estimated the policy would cost around $60 million per year while saving oral contraception users around $260 per year.

Dr. Ruth Habte was there when the NDP announced its intention to make contraception free on 2020’s International Day of the Girl. Habte, an obstetrics and gynaecology resident physician at the University of British Columbia and a campaign coordinator with AccessBC, said the party asked her to “share some experiences” about the impact lack of access to contraception has on those who rely on it (mostly women).

“Two years later, to still not have a policy enactment is incredibly disappointing, and it’s something that affects the patients that I take care of every single day,” Habte told BC Today. “Every budget that it is not included in, we simply have more patients who are unable to access the medicines that they need to get to, and that results in unintended pregnancies and costs for the government.”

Burnaby—Lougheed MLA Katrina Chen, the minister of state for child care, announced in October 2020 the NDP government would make prescription contraception free for all. (BC NDP)

A 2010 study by Options for Sexual Health concluded that every dollar governments put toward prescription contraception can save them “as much as $90 in public expenditure on social supports.”

“They estimated that the B.C. government alone could save $95 million if they implemented this program and that was back in 2010,” Habte said. “It definitely would help the average British Columbian quite a bit.”

The cost of prescription contraception varies depending on the type: oral contraceptives typically cost around $20 per month in B.C., while a year’s worth of hormone injections can run to $180 per year. Intrauterine devices (IUDs) can last for several years and cost anywhere from $75 to $380.

Cost is “the main barrier to accessing prescription contraception in B.C.,” according to a 2021 estimates note from the Ministry of Health, which also pegs 40 per cent of pregnancies in the province as “unintended at the time of conception,” along with one-third of births.

Currently, there is limited provincial coverage of prescription contraception for some people receiving social assistance and others getting care from the First Nations Health Authority. In the 2021 fiscal year, B.C. PharmaCare program paid out $3.8 million for contraceptives and related dispensing fees. Of that, nearly $2.6 million went to prescription contraceptives.

As of last spring, the health ministry was “working with internal and external partners on a phased plan” to implement free prescription contraception, per the estimates note. One option would be to cover contraception under the PharmaCare program, offering full coverage for generic options and covering brand name contraceptives “up to the price of the equivalent generic.”

The “advice and recommendations” included in the estimates note’s financial implications section were redacted.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for an update on its work on the policy by publication time.

Dr. Ruth Habte, an obstetrics and gynaecology resident physician at the University of British Columbia and a campaign coordinator with AccessBC, says making contraceptives free could save the government millions in other costs. (AccessBC Campaign)

Finance Minister Selina Robinson has said the NDP will make good on its promise before the next election. When pressed on the NDP’s lack of action on several equity issues — in addition to promising free contraception, the 2020 campaign included a pledge to address the gender pay gap via legislation — Robinson has pivoted to other policies that have seen action.

Affordable child care is a particular favourite — “it’s the biggest social program we can do for equity for women in this province,” Robinson said during estimates debate last year.

That talking point feels like “more of an excuse than anything,” to Habte.

“It’s important to remember that tackling one policy that helps mostly women is great, but it doesn’t mean that it should give you a pass on not going for other policies that also affect [the] majority [of] women,” she said.