In a country where the majority of health care coverage is tied to people’s employment, job losses due to Covid-19—which have predominantly impacted women and their families—have disrupted access to reproductive health care. According to the Center for American Progress, during the first ten months of the pandemic-induced recession, women—overwhelmingly those of color—lost a net of 5.4 million jobs.
In non-pandemic times, common barriers to reproductive health services tend to be cost, distance from a health clinic, lack of transportation, living in a contraceptive desert, legal restrictions, and gender inequality. Covid-19 added state-wide lockdowns to the list. A national survey conducted by the Guttmacher Institute at the beginning of the pandemic, in April of 2020, found that because of Covid-19, one-in-three women delayed or canceled their sexual and reproductive health appointments or had trouble getting their contraceptives. At the end of 2020, the KFF Women’s Health Survey found that 8% of 18–25-year-old women and 7% of 26–35-year-old women weren’t able to get birth control due to the pandemic. Black, Hispanic, queer, and lower-income women experienced the most trouble accessing care.
Below are a few ways to improve access to reproductive health care services during this and potential future pandemics:
Having mobile reproductive health care units could make services more accessible to those in communities that lack adequate transportation or live in rural areas where health centers are scarce. In addition, mobile clinics can help put potential patients at ease who have been anxious to leave their homes during the pandemic.
In the last year and a half, telehealth services have boomed due to the limited availability of in-person care. The ability to access care from your smartphone, computer, and other devices from the comfort of your own home has created enormous potential for the future of sexual and reproductive health programs. Telehealth can be used for services including hormonal contraception, medication abortion, and STI testing and treatment. Although telemedicine can provide a host of benefits, access to technology is still a barrier. It’s important that providers offer a diverse array of care options that meet people where they’re at.
Lack of affordability has always been a barrier in accessing contraceptives. With significant rates of unemployment during the pandemic and the subsequent loss of health insurance coverage, it’s crucial to make contraceptives inexpensive, if not free for the 2 million people who exist in the health insurance coverage gap—those who aren’t poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or Title X but also aren’t financially secure enough to pay full price out-of-pocket. By viewing family planning as a human right no matter one’s income level, we can ensure that women and girls are empowered to decide their own reproductive futures.
Over the Counter Contraceptives
Hormonal birth control pills have been around for six decades now; they’re known to be safe, effective, and widely used. Requiring a prescription, despite the pill’s proven safety and efficacy, is an unnecessary obstacle. Not only have studies shown that women are more than capable of using self-screening tools to identify the appropriate contraceptives for themselves, well over 100 countries already have the pill available over the counter. It’s time we forgo the prescription-only option for hormonal birth control and provide the pill over the counter. Doing so would prevent further delays in accessing timely contraceptive care during the pandemic.