House and Senate legislators are moving toward widening contraception options available to service members and their families.
Draft versions of each chamber's 2016 defense authorization bill include provisions related to birth control and contraception available through the military health system.
The House bill would expand options available at military treatment facilities, while the Senate bill calls for increased family planning counseling and updates to the military health system's clinical guidelines on birth control.
Military pharmacies stock many contraceptive prescriptions or devices, but not all methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration are listed in the Defense Department's basic formulary, the list of medications that military treatment facilities are required to stock.
The House bill would ensure that MTFs offer methods such as Depo-Provera injections, contraceptive rings and intra-uterine devices in addition to the birth control pills and contraceptive patches that are frequently prescribed. The bill also would require military health officials to provide enough medication to female troops to cover the length of an entire deployment.
Lawmakers say the unavailability of long-term birth control methods, or the standard practice of dissuading troops from using methods such as IUDs if they have not had children, represent a obstacle to care that can negatively affect their health and careers.
According to a report released in February by the Center For American Progress, one-third of women in uniform say they were unable to receive a preferred birth control method before deploying, while 41 percent had problems refilling their prescriptions once deployed.
"Not all contraceptive methods are equal, and some women can only tolerate certain types," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who pressed for inclusion of the provision in the House bill. "Service women deserve access to the same array of contraceptive methods available to the civilians they fight to protect."
The Senate bill, which has been approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee but not officially released, does not go as far as mandating expansion of the basic formulary. Rather, it would require DoD to update its clinical practice guidelines for physicians on birth control and provide contraception counseling to female troops.
In a bill introduced last year, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., had pressed to expand the basic formulary to include all FDA-approved birth control prescriptions, a Shaheen spokesman said Thursday, adding that the senator planned to offer an amendment including such a provision when the defense bill is considered by the full Senate.
"Providing complete and current information on contraception will allow active service members — especially the more than 350,000 women in uniform — to make more informed family planning decisions," Shaheen said.
The House bill also contains a provision that would expand reproductive counseling and fertility services for troops and their family members, a benefit now available at a cost to a limited number of personnel at a handful of military hospitals.
The bill provides few details on what services would be covered, but said coverage would be "pursuant" to the findings of a report required under the 2015 Defense Authorization Act on the subject.
The Senate version contains no similar provision.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.