Birth control will soon become free for all Manitobans with a prescription, the province announced Tuesday.

The announcement, made during Premier Wab Kinew’s Tuesday throne speech, makes good on an election promise the NDP campaigned on. The party previously pegged the cost to implement the universal coverage of select contraceptives at $11 million per year.

“Reproductive health care is a right. Our government will protect and affirm Manitobans’ right to access abortion services, protect abortion providers and make prescription birth control free,” said Tuesday’s speech, which was read by Lt.-Gov. Anita Neville in the legislature.

The NDP previously said the plan would include several prescription and over-the-counter birth control methods, including the morning-after pill, hormonal injections, copper and hormonal intrauterine devices and oral contraceptives, but not condoms.

Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara says the move prioritizes women’s health care.

“We want to send a clear message to women — and those across Manitoba who need this aspect of health care — that our government is working very hard to make sure that you know your health care is a priority,” they told reporters outside of the legislative chamber on Tuesday.

Asagwara says the province is having conversations with local experts in order to ensure accessibility to birth control everywhere in Manitoba, particularly in rural and remote areas.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all in terms of how we do this. There’s going to be different approaches we need to take.”

Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara says the province is having conversations with local experts in order to ensure accessibility extends across Manitoba, particularly in rural and remote areas. (CBC)

Manitoba is set to become the second Canadian province to provide universal access to prescribed birth control. British Columbia was the first to implement the same measure earlier this year.

Caitlin Bloxom, a nurse with Winnipeg’s Klinic Community Health, says it can be “absolutely impossible” for some to access contraception due to costs and barriers to clinics that offer it for free.

“I think it’s a huge step if we can make this an affordable service for people who need it,” Bloxom told CBC News on Tuesday.

“This is going to save health systems money, and I think the benefits are just very clear for the individual and communities as well, so I really see no downsides.”

Unplanned or unwanted pregnancies can lead to psychosocial distress and added costs on the health-care system, she said, and people have the right to control their bodies and prevent unwanted pregnancies with medications proven safe at doing so.

“It would just be removing that barrier of cost for people.”

Bloxom also works in Klinic’s walk-in teen clinic, which she says provides free birth control.

“One of the primary reasons that we see teens coming in to us is for accessible birth control,” she said, adding that the program removes barriers for teens who have a right to contraception but do not want to disclose their use of it to parents and/or caregivers.

“Certainly, this is something that I imagine is not available in many smaller communities, unfortunately,” she said.

‘Birth control should not be a luxury’

Though she is happy with Tuesday’s announcement, Bloxom says she would like to see more outreach clinics bring birth control to people in schools and homeless encampments to further improve access to contraceptives.

“I think this is a very important piece of the puzzle, but big-picture-wise, I think we have a long way to go.”

Dr. Rupinder Toor, medical director and founder of the IUD & Women’s Clinic in Calgary — which advocates for the federal government to provide universal access to birth control nationally — says free for the public doesn’t mean free in general.

“But the good news is that we know that studies have shown that every dollar that we invest in universal contraception can save the system up to nine dollars in the public sector,” she told CBC News on Tuesday.

A woman is shown smiling.
Dr. Rupinder Toor, medical director and founder of the IUD & Women’s Clinic in Calgary, says Manitoba’s plan to provide universal access to prescription birth control is a ‘phenomenal policy.’ (Submitted by Rupinder Toor)

Toor says providing free birth control “evens the playing field,” since the most effective forms of contraception are longer-acting options, which are cost-effective in the long run but can cost as much as $500 upfront.

“I think this is a phenomenal policy, and I would encourage all provinces to consider this, but I would really encourage the federal government to be looking at this as a policy,” she said.

“We’re in an affordability crisis right now, and birth control should not be a luxury item.”