Sask. med students push province to make prescription birth control free

Saskatchewan medical students and the province's Official Opposition want the provincial government to make prescription contraception free. The push comes after British Columbia made the change.

Advocacy grows after B.C. provides universal coverage

A medium-shot of a woman wearing a white lab coat. She has dark hair, is smiling and looking slightly off camera.
Natisha Thakkar is a University of Saskatchewan medical student based in Regina and co-founder of UACSask. (CBC)

A group of Saskatchewan medical students wants the provincial government to make prescription birth control available free of charge. 

"Our call to the government is to implement prescription coverage of contraception in order to reduce barriers of access,"  said Natisha Thakkar, a University of Saskatchewan medical student and one of the co-founders of Universal Access to Contraception Saskatchewan (UACSask).

The students say universal coverage can improve people's health and well-being. They say the cost of birth control options in Saskatchewan is preventing people from accessing them — potentially leading to unplanned pregnancies or other health complications. 

Thakkar said IUDs (devices embedded into the uterus to prevent pregnancy) can cost $400 and birth control pills can cost up to $240 per year.

Kalea Rempel said unplanned pregnancies are more costly than universal birth control coverage would be. 

"In Regina right now, the termination of pregnancy costs $2,200 for the health-care system, which is rightfully covered by our government, but it is quite a stark difference," said Rempel, who is also a University of Saskatchewan medical student and co-founder of UACSask.

"A live birth without any complications costs our health-care system around $8,000."

A package of birth control pills is seen on a black surface.
A group of medical students has started a provincial non-partisan campaign to advocate to the Saskatchewan government for universal coverage of contraception. (Submitted)

Rempel noted the pill is also used for medical conditions related to the uterus and ovaries, like polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis.

She said the students' advocacy group is motivated by recent coverage changes in B.C. On April 1, B.C. became the first Canadian jurisdiction to make prescription contraception — including oral pills, injections, IUDs and the morning-after pill Plan B —  free for all residents.

"It's possible to do in Canada and it's paving the road for other provinces," Rempel said.

Advocates and grassroots organizations are pushing for similar changes in other provices. Some politicians are campaigning on the issue. 

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley pledged that prescription contraception would be free for all Albertans if her party forms government. The NDP in Manitoba made a similar promise last month. 

Sask. gov't 'content' with current model

Last week, Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman said the government had no plans to change its coverage model.

"We're content with where we are right now. Just because one province is looking at one program doesn't mean that all provinces are going to do that," he said.

"We're not having any active discussions on that. We do support a lot of contraception through either distribution of condoms, through community based organizations, or if there is people that are on supplementary health benefits, that's another option for them, for people that are having some financial challenges."

But not everyone struggling financially meets the bar for financial assistance. The medical students also said condoms aren't as effective as other forms of contraception and don't give agency to the person at risk of pregnancy. 

"Having condoms rather than the IUD or the pill, [that] doesn't place the autonomy and control of reproductive health in the hands of the person that has the uterus," Thakkar said. "Additionally, at the end of the day with condoms, you still need to have physical access to the condoms, whereas something like an IUD can be placed in a uterus for up to eight years."

Last year, Saskatchewan's Opposition NDP launched a petition calling for universal coverage of birth control.

"So far we've heard nothing but crickets from the government around this call to action," said Jennifer Bowes, a member of the Opposition.

Bowes said free birth control is especially important as the cost of living remains high. 

"Unfortunately, when people are having to make decisions about what to cut, when they don't have enough money for everything that they need in their lives, if they have to pick between groceries and birth control, birth control is going to be the thing that's going to go."

The medical students have written an open letter and plan to present it at the Saskatchewan Legislature later this month. 

"Our group for sure wants to work with the government to show why this is such an important initiative and show that it can be something that's done in Saskatchewan," Rempel said.

with files from Jessie Anton, Alexander Quon