Primary care trusts are restricting the availability and prescribing of contraceptives leaving 3.2 million women without access to a full range of services, according to a report by a group of experts.
A Freedom of Information audit by the Advisory Group on Contraception (AGC) found more than a third of PCTs – 35 per cent – had placed some kind of restriction on the prescribing or availability of contraceptives.
One in six PCTs confirmed certain types of contraceptives – often newer, more expensive contraceptive pills - featured on their prescribing “black lists”.
Others were limiting services to certain age groups or those living within their areas, or making some types of contraception available only with a GP referral – restrictions described as “completely unacceptable” the Family Planning Association, a member of the ACG.
“When areas of the NHS deliberately ban certain contraceptive methods and put up barriers and restrictions to services, women pay the price in abortion and unplanned pregnancy,” said FPA chief executive Julie Bentley.
The report found a higher than average abortion rate in PCT areas that were restricting access to contraceptives or contraceptive services, with some evidence such decisions were based on cost.
Overall, poor commissioning and a failure to address the needs of women aged over 20, in particular, was placing a “significant cost burden” on the NHS, concluded the AGC report.
Unintended pregnancy among women aged over 20 costs the NHS in England more than £440m a year, with four in five abortions among that age group, according to the analysis.
However, sexual health services and education programmes were often designed around the needs of teenagers.
Twenty-eight per cent of the 126 PCTs who supplied data did not have a strategy in place to address unintended pregnancy and the need for abortion or repeat abortions.
The ACG said Department of Health’s eagerly-awaited sexual health policy document must ensure services were “open access”. It called on commissioners to scrap restrictions and develop comprehensive strategies focusing on the needs of women of all ages.
Initial findings from the audit presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health earlier this year prompted MPs to launch an inquiry with written submissions due by 18 May.