“I stumbled upon this last night and I may just be dreaming but I am wondering if this is a possibility especially on the Portland campus…"
With that email to the Director of Health Services at the University of Southern Maine two years ago, I began what would become a months-long campaign to change an outdated Maine law to increase access to nonprescription medicine.
It started with a seemingly simple desire to make emergency contraception more readily available to college students in Maine. I feel very lucky to go to the University of Southern Maine where we actually have emergency contraception available for a low price in our health center. However, the health center is only open Monday through Friday with limited hours, and at the time we only had one health center which is problematic considering we have three campuses.
I thought we could do better and after reading a story about a vending machine at the University of California at Davis the dispensed emergency contraception, I emailed to ask if we could do the same thing at USM.
The administration was supportive and in the fall of 2017, the Huskies for Reproductive Health, our campus advocacy group, started researching how to fund and stock the vending machine, brainstorming where to put it, and feeling very confident that this could be implemented within the 2017-2018 school year.
That’s when we hit our first roadblock: an old Maine law that makes it illegal to sell any medicine or drugs in vending machines.
Well, I wasn’t going to take no for an answer: I reached out to State Representative Maureen Terry to see what we could do on the state level. She explained that it was too late in the legislative session to submit bill but we could spend the next year developing a bill to address this problem. We did just that.
Last September we began collecting statements of support from other students, faculty, and staff members. It quickly became clear that having vending machines with nonprescription drugs was bigger than emergency contraception.
Mainers have always had significant difficulty accessing healthcare. Many Mainers live in rural areas without transportation or a lot of time or money. College students in areas much more rural than USM have significant difficulty just getting to the pharmacy for Ibuprofen.
To be clear, access to emergency contraception is critical. Emergency contraception is birth control you can take after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy. It is most effective if taken within 24 hours, so time is of the essence.
From September 2018 to January 2019, we received more than 150 testimonies in support of implementing wellness vending machines on college campuses, as well as at bus stations, rest stops, airports, or shopping malls, and even outside drugstores.
Some of the stories we received were tough to read, like stories of being sexually assaulted on campus and wanting to get emergency contraception confidentially without having to travel too far. Fear, anger, confusion, and the added stress of obtaining critical medicine to prevent pregnancy.
With a devastating 1 in 4 college women being sexually assaulted, we need to do everything we can to center the needs of survivors, including access to health care. Our bill will increase access to emergency contraception. It’s a start.
Rep. Terry had submitted the bill, LD 37, An Act to Allow for the Sale of Nonprescription Drugs Through Vending Machines, and in January we learned there would be a public hearing at the end of the month.
Students from college and universities across the state came to Augusta to support the bill and a number of organizations testified about how this would help the people they serve.
The statewide support just goes to show how important this will be for Mainers. Closing any barriers to healthcare is crucial to keeping ourselves and our neighbors healthy.