Pittsburgh—Pharmacists regularly fill 3-month prescriptions of routine medications, but what about dispensing a year-long supply? That could be coming trend for birth control pills.

Although it is not well-known, 17 states and the District of Columbia require insurance companies to cover a year’s supply of contraceptives. The cost-effectiveness of that was demonstrated in a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

University of Pittsburgh–led researchers tested the approach in the Department of Veterans Affairs, which manages the largest integrated American health system.

Results based on a mathematical model indicate that dispensing a year’s supply of birth control pills up front would support women’s reproductive autonomy, while also being cost effective.

“Medication dispensing limits are thought to be cost-saving because you’re not wasting pills and medicines that people aren't going to use,” explained lead author Colleen Judge-Golden, an MD, PhD student at Pitt’s School of Medicine. “Our analysis shows that concerns about wastage of contraceptive pills are overshadowed by the potential consequences of missed refills, and especially of unintended pregnancies.”

In fact, the study points out that reducing birth-control refills would help female veterans better avoid undesired pregnancies, and the money saved on healthcare costs would more than outweigh the expense of providing birth control in larger quantities.

Currently, according to VA data, 43% of women receiving 3-month increments of birth control pills experience at least one gap between refills over a year’s time, whereas outside of the VA, women receiving a year’s worth of contraceptives have fewer gaps and, as a result, fewer unintended pregnancies.

As with most U.S. health plans, the VA currently stipulates a 3-month maximum dispensing limit for all medications, including oral contraceptive pills (OCPs). The researchers sought to estimate the financial and reproductive health implications for the VA of implementing a 12-month OCP dispensing option, with the goal of informing policy change.

To do that, they developed a decision model from the VA payer perspective to estimate incremental costs to the healthcare system of allowing the option to receive a 12-month supply of OCPs up front, compared with the standard 3-month maximum, over a year. The assumptions were based on a model cohort of more than 240,000 reproductive-aged, heterosexually active, female VA enrollees who wish to avoid pregnancy for at least a year.

At the same time, published data were used to calculate probabilities of continuation of OCP use, coverage gaps, pregnancy, and pregnancy outcomes, costs of OCP provision and pregnancy-related care, and the number of women using OCPs, obtained from VA administrative records.

Results indicated that the 12-month OCP dispensing option resulted in anticipated VA annual cost savings of $87.12 per woman compared with the cost of 3-month dispensing, which amounted to a savings of more than $2 million annually.

Cost savings resulted from an absolute reduction of 24 unintended pregnancies per 1,000 women per year with 12-month dispensing; overall, 583 unintended pregnancies would be averted annually.

The study team noted that expected cost savings with 12-month dispensing were sensitive to changes in the probability of OCP coverage gaps with 3-month dispensing, the probability of pregnancy during coverage gaps, and the proportion of pregnancies paid for by the VA.

When simultaneously varying all variables across plausible ranges, the 12-month strategy was cost saving in 95.4% of model iterations, the authors wrote, adding, “Adoption of a 12-month OCP dispensing option is expected to produce substantial cost savings for the VA while better supporting reproductive autonomy and reducing unintended pregnancy among women veterans.”

Background information in the article explained that pill-pack quantity per fill is primarily determined by the patient’s insurance. In the United States, medication dispensing is typically limited to 30-, 60-, or 90-day supplies as a mechanism to control costs, with 3-month supplies increasingly common among commercial and public insurers because of improved adherence and cost savings for patients and payers.

“Nevertheless, 90-day limits still necessitate multiple refills annually,” the authors write. “Gaps in OCP coverage due to prescription refill delays are an established barrier to perfect contraceptive use among U.S. women.”

“We see extended contraceptive dispensing as a win-win,” added Judge-Golden, “promoting women’s health and women’s autonomy to use birth control as they decide, while also being economically sustainable for the VA.”

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