While the controversy continues to swirl around radio talkmeister Rush Limbaugh and his admittedly inappropriate comments about Georgetown Law Student Sandra Fluke, an analysis from the left-leaning Brookings Institution adds an economic twist to the debate over coverage of contraception.
Love them or hate them, contraceptives do save taxpayers money, Brookings concludes.
The study, from the Brookings Center on Children and Families, looked at three different ways to prevent unintended pregnancies, which account for about half of all pregnancies in the U.S.
All three approaches more than pay for themselves. But one -– increasing funding for family planning services through the Medicaid program -– clearly outshines the other two in terms of cost-effectiveness.
Yes, you may have heard there are lots of ways to lower the rate of unintended pregnancy. There are mass media campaigns to urge young people to avoid unprotected sex. Other programs urge teens to delay having sex, or, as a fallback, teach them how to use contraception effectively. And then there's Medicaid's help low-income women afford the most effective contraceptive methods.
But this study, using a simulation model devised by Brookings, is the first to estimate exactly how much could be saved using each method.
It found that a national mass media campaign that would cost $100 million would result in about $431 million in savings to taxpayers, largely by reducing unintended pregnancy, particularly among people who don't make much money.
Programs the Brookings researchers called "evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention," which combine an emphasis on abstinence "while also educating participants about how to use various methods of contraception" have both reduced the rate of sexual activity and increased the use of contraception.
Spending $145 million on such programs would return $356 million to taxpayers, according to the model.
But by far the biggest return on investment would come from expanding access to family planning through Medicaid, something made possibly through the 2010 Affordable Care Act. A $235 million investment there would lower taxpayer costs of $1.32 billion by preventing unintended pregnancies.
"Evidence-based pregnancy prevention interventions are public policy trifectas: They generate taxpayer savings, they improve the lives of children and families, and they reduce the incidence of abortion," writes Adam Thomas, the study's author.
Big deal, say some people, unimpressed with the idea of birth control as a money saver.
"So you're saying by not having babies born, we're going to save money in healthcare?" asked an incredulous Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee hearing last week.
Exactly, Sebelius replied, explaining what studies like the one from Brookings have shown for years. "Providing contraception as a critical preventive health benefit for women and for their children reduces health care funds," she said.
"Not having babies born is a critical benefit. This is absolutely amazing to me. I yield back," said Murphy.
In Limbaugh's apology to Fluke, there's no suggestion that he had changed his mind about who should pay for contraception: Women, not the government, should pick up the tab.