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Obamacare has saved women more than $1 billion on birth control

Birth control is getting cheaper. (Flickr user Sarac C.)

American women are spending much less money on birth control since the Affordable Care Act started requiring insurance plans to cover contraception, according to a new analysis.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examined health insurance claims from one of the country’s largest private insurers in 2012 (pre-Obamacare) and 2013 (post-Obamacare). They found that spending on the pill, America’s most popular birth control method, quickly fell 38 percent -- from $33 to $20, on average. Spending on IUDs, meanwhile, plummeted 68 percent, from $262 to $84.

The total savings, the health economists estimate: $1.4 billion.

Observe the sharp drop after the mandate took effect:

One company’s records can’t capture exactly what’s happening across the country. But the findings, published this week in Health Affairs, offer a glimpse into how the cost of birth control is shrinking as the law pushes it toward zero.

Under the ACA, a woman should be able to fill a prescription without opening her wallet. Not all brands, however, are required to be covered with no cost sharing. Some insurance plans have failed to comply with the law, the National Women's Law Center recently found. And some women in the study’s sample were enrolled in grandfathered plans not yet subject to the mandate or whose employers did not participate for religious reasons.

Health economists say the financial barrier to birth control drives up unintended pregnancies and, ultimately, the taxpayer burden. The monthly co-pay for pills, though typically under $50, adds up. And the cost of an IUD, arguably the most effective method on the market, can reach $1,000.

It’s too early to tell how cheaper contraceptives may be affecting the birth rate. Years of research show the stakes remain high, no matter where you stand politically, when it comes to broader access to birth control.

A poor woman in the United States is five times as likely as an affluent woman to accidentally become pregnant and have a  baby, the Brookings Institution recently found.

Unintended pregnancies, in general, cost taxpayers $21 billion a year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health organization. That averages out to a cost of about $366 per every American woman of childbearing age.

State programs show a stunning connection between increased birth control availability and decreased teen pregnancy.

Between 2007 and 2012, for example, Colorado saw the highest percentage drop in birth rates among teens 15 to 19 in the country, according to a CDC report. Its teen birth rates over that period dropped 39 percent, compared to 29 percent nationwide.

Health officials said a simple public program sparked the change: 30,000 IUDs, offered for free (or close to it) by the state's family-planning clinics.