Nova Scotia

Advocates urge N.S. government to make contraceptives widely available, free

Sexual health advocates are calling on the Nova Scotia government to make contraceptives universally available and free. The deputy minister of health says there's a review of drugs covered by the province underway, but makes no commitment.

'Not funding it is very simply gender discrimination,' says chair of Wellness Within

A woman with her hair in a braid
Martha Paynter, board chair of Wellness Within, a non-profit reproductive justice organization, is shown Tuesday at Province House in Halifax. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Organizations that offer women advice on contraception and help them deal with unexpected pregnancies are urging the Nova Scotia government to make birth control drugs and devices free across the province.

Nurse Martha Paynter told the health committee of the Nova Scotia Legislature Tuesday that refusing to do so amounts to discrimination against women.

"It's a gender equity issue and not funding is very simply gender discrimination, very pure and simple," said Paynter, board chair of Wellness Within, a non-profit reproductive justice organization. "We're operating in a context of daily discrimination against the people with uteruses in this province."

Paynter told the committee that, for example, paying for intrauterine devices (IUD), which are placed in the uterus to prevent pregnancy, would be a good long-term investment.

"As a nurse providing abortion care I see how patients return again and again because, while abortion services are rightly funded, contraception is not, and abortion becomes the only recourse," said Paynter.

"The cost to Nova Scotia taxpayers of an abortion procedure is roughly $2,000. Compare this to $400 for an intrauterine device that provide effective birth control for five years, or even $30 for a monthly pack of birth control pills."

The health committee of the Nova Scotia Legislature met Tuesday. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The committee heard a similar message from Dr. Melissa Brooks, who said at the Women's Choice Clinic in Halifax, where donations are used to buy IUDs for women who cannot afford them, staff hand out "at least a few a day."

"We give them out like candy," Brooks told the committee. "And we could go through hundreds more.

"There are so many people at our clinic that need that service and they fall through the cracks of the system."

Leigh Heide, provincial co-ordinator of Sexual Health Nova Scotia, told the committee of a young woman who called one of the six centres the organization oversees.

According to Heide, the woman was desperate for advice on Nexplanon, a birth control implant that is normally inserted in the arm by a clinician. The woman called the centre in a panic because she could not get a doctor's appointment.

"This was a young person who watched a YouTube video and felt that they could probably do it" on their own, said Heide. "Of course, we discourage that strongly, but that's not a bizarre situation."

Heide said the centres "get calls frequently about people at their wit's end trying to figure out how to get birth control or STI testing or any of the services they need."

Dr. Melissa Brooks is with the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Although the province pays for some birth control measures, through the provincial family pharmacare program, the co-pay can be a barrier to young women accessing the contraception they want, according to Brooks.

"An IUD costs $400. Even if they have family pharmacare, they haven't had enough prescriptions to get through their deductible," she said. "They still have to pay $400.

"So it doesn't really help those young, healthy people."

The deputy minister of health, Jeannine Lagasse, would not commit to any changes to existing policy, but she said officials were reviewing the province's pharmacare program.

"It is too early in the review to make any commitment on any changes that would be made at this time, but I can tell you there's a fulsome review going on of the formulary and other aspects of coverage."