A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) this month would ensure that women serving in the military have access to family planning services and contraceptive coverage.
The legislationwould require the Department of Defense to provide all women who receive health care through the military’s health insurance program with any form of FDA-approved contraceptive of their choosing without a copay.
That includes women who are themselves in military service, in addition to families of service members who get health care through the insurance program known as TRICARE.
“Our U.S. servicemen and women put their lives on the line every day to protect our country,” said DeGette in a press release announcing the legislation. “We have a responsibility to provide them the same care that they provide us, and that includes providing them access to all of the health care services they need.”
DeGette, who represents the Denver metro area, chairs the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.
“I feel like for once someone cares about female service members,” said Gina Hill, who served for eight years in the U.S. Air Force, in an interview with the Colorado Times Recorder. “We’re a small population in a male-dominated culture, so most of the time I feel like our issues are pushed to the wayside.”
Hill, who said she worked in the gynecologist’s office on base, explained that servicewomen face a unique set of challenges when it comes to family planning.
“Since as a service member you deploy a lot, you need either permanent or semi-permanent birth control,” she said. “Most of the women go with the IUD or the Nexplanon [arm implant] because you don’t have to take the daily pill, so once they have that it’s more low maintenance.”
But long-acting contraceptives like IUDs often require multiple doctor’s visits, said Hill, and getting an appointment with the gynecologist on base can be difficult.
“Getting appointments was almost impossible because they serve the whole community of dependents and everybody else, and often we would have to get referred outside of the medical group for anything other than basic Mirena IUDs or Nexplanon,” she said. “I remember as an airman waiting like a month to get birth control, and I was a newlywed, so that could have been really dangerous.”
Hill is one of many servicewomen who has struggled to get access to contraceptives.
About a third of servicewomen struggle to access their preferred method of contraception, and 59 percent hadn’t even spoken to a military provider about contraception before being deployed, according to a 2013 study.
DeGette’s bill would also require the Department of Defense to develop a family planning education program for servicemembers in an effort to ensure that military families can make informed family planning decisions.
Servicewomen also face unique challenges when they become pregnant and choose to get an abortion.
Abortion and abortion counseling are not provided by the Department of Defense, and, as Hill explained, it’s difficult to keep decisions about reproductive health private.
“I remember working in the gynecologist clinic and service members coming in who had gotten pregnant, and we could do nothing for them,” she said. “We would even have to tell their chain of command within two weeks or so, and start a profile to limit their duty in case they work with any dangerous chemicals or heavy lifting. So it would be like, go to Denver, get your abortion, and then you need to come back to us and prove that you’re not pregnant anymore so we can cancel this and not tell your leadership.”
“It was like the woman couldn’t even keep it a secret if she wanted to,” Hill added.
It’s a pervasive issue considering the high rate of unintended pregnancies for servicewomen, which is 50 percent higher than the general population’s, according to a 2013 study.
“These things affect our daily lives,” said Hill. “For once I feel cared for, and like I’m important, and what I did matters.”
An identical version of the bill was introduced in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).