Here at the Claremont Independent, we aim to kindle meaningful discussion by introducing less commonly held views on a variety of campus issues. In his latest opinion piece, Harry Arnold ‘17 expresses his views on the promotion of Pomona’s Plan B vending machine and its negative moral and social implications. However, we argue that, from an economic standpoint, there is a strong free market case to be made in defense of vending machines that sell Plan B, among other medical supplies, on America’s college campuses.
Plan B is a prime example of the near-infinite problems bedeviling our nation’s health care market, particularly when it comes to drug policy. Medical vending machines exemplify the positive changes occurring in America’s healthcare landscape in spite of federal policy.
On the whole, drugs are far too expensive and inaccessible for the average consumer. Part of this is due to the elaborate regulations and bureaucratic red tape promulgated by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The high cost of getting a new drug approved by the FDA is outrageous. Forbes has determined that it costs, on average, $350 million to get a new drug through the FDA to the market. Who pays for that? It isn’t the drug companies. Instead, the cost is shifted onto consumers directly, or indirectly through higher insurance premiums and taxes to cover those on government-provided health insurance programs.
When Plan B first came out as an over-the-counter drug, it cost up to $90 and averaged around $50. How were those prices set? It’s hard to tell due to our country’s historical lack of price transparency and competition for medical goods and services. When you go to your pharmacist or your doctor, you pay whatever price they set. And the system is built against allowing consumers to shop around. With all the distortions and opacity in the healthcare market, these prices are often arbitrary and highly inflated. Some people don’t mind paying a higher price, but most price-conscious consumers would prefer to pay less.
Today we are in the midst of one of the first major shifts of market forces into healthcare. If allowed to continue, it could prove to be the best thing that ever happened to healthcare, and Corporate America is leading the way.
In recent years, big-box retail corporations have realized that there is serious money to be made in providing health care services and products, ranging from simple flu shots to a wide range of prescription drugs. Target, for example, utilizes its immense purchasing power, operating efficiency, and tight profit margin to deliver the same drugs as pharmacies and hospitals at a much lower price.
Transparent store prices breed competition on factors including price, quality, and convenience. Unlike with pharmacies and hospitals, consumers who buy drugs at chain stores, such as Target, Rite-Aid, or WalMart, are able to easily compare among the various providers to find the best price. On college campuses, vending machines provide yet another source of competition for over-the-counter drugs.
Vending machines for Plan B are an innovative way to provide around-the-clock access and competitive pricing. With vending machines, no direct intermediary is necessary for purchase. You simply insert money and receive your desired product, at any time of day (especially important given the time-sensitive nature of Plan B). Vending machines also provide college students a level of convenience similar to what big box retailers provide real-world consumers. Convenience is valuable itself, a non-monetary form of competition.
By providing emergency contraception via vending machines, colleges are more efficiently meeting student demand. The Pomona College administration did not invent the Plan B vending machine: the Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) played an integral role in introducing the concept and formalizing the final proposal. The desire for a vending machine that distributes Plan B arose from students concerned that the drug is not available at night or over the weekend. Student Health Services, the only Plan B provider on campus, is closed during those times. To address this shortcoming, Pomona students initiated a viable solution that won widespread support.
Students at Claremont McKenna College are only now engaging in a meaningful discussion about Pomona’s policy change, and that’s because of Harry’s article. His article promotes one of the many perspectives that exist among right-leaning students. His is more conservative, ours more libertarian.
The Claremont Independent staff remains divided on this issue, but we hope that, in any case, we are able to spark a thoughtful dialogue on campus, perhaps beyond Plan B, vending machines, and Skittles, that sheds further light on the morality of commoditizing emergency contraception, the social consequences of our college hookup culture, and the economic fundamentals behind improving student access.