BOSTON (SHNS) – Bay Staters would gain increased access to menstrual products in schools and other public settings, and pharmacists could distribute short-term supplies of HIV prevention drugs under a pair of bills that won Senate approval Thursday.
The Senate unanimously approved the two health care access measures, each of which won the chamber’s backing last year but died without any action in the House.
One bill (S 2481) would require settings such as schools, correctional facilities and temporary housing facilities to make tampons, pads and other menstrual products accessible at no cost to those who need them.
More than 20 other states have approved some kind of policy to make period products free, according to Sasha Goodfriend, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women. Goodfriend warned that Massachusetts is “now starting to fall behind the rest of the country.”
Senate President Karen Spilka pitched the reform as a “simple” way to make a big impact.
“I don’t say that very often for bills coming through the Legislature, but this one is simple,” Spilka said at a celebratory press conference after the vote. “Roughly 50 percent of people in Massachusetts menstruate, yet we have offered them virtually zero support as a state despite the fact that pads and tampons are not luxuries. We know that. They are necessities, and right now, one in seven children in Massachusetts is living in poverty and struggles to pay for menstrual products.”
Student groups in particular have ramped up advocacy for the reform in recent years, sharing stories with lawmakers of missing class because their periods unexpectedly started and school nurses did not have sufficient stockpiles of menstrual products.
“Seventeen percent of school nurses say they pay for pads and tampons with their own money to give them to kids,” Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat and the bill’s lead sponsor, said. “We don’t expect school nurses to buy toilet paper and paper towels for everybody in the school — why should they pay for these products?”
The Senate unanimously approved a similar bill in March 2022, but it never emerged from the House Ways and Means Committee before the term ended.
“I think the reason that the bill was not brought up for a vote in the House was largely because periods are not talked about on the daily, and they’ve been such a stigmatized and invisible issue for so long that we have hundreds of years of stigma to combat in order to make it a top-of-mind priority,” Goodfriend said.
Senators voted 38-0 in favor of the latest version of the bill. Republican Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth said both of Thursday’s votes reflect “a loud message that we are going to bring inequities to the forefront.”
Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat, pointed out that the chamber has now approved two of the five priorities for the Mass. Caucus of Women Legislators in the last two weeks, following last week’s approval of a pay transparency and equity bill.
The other legislation that won unanimous Senate approval Thursday (S 2480) would allow licensed pharmacists to prescribe, dispense or administer a short-term supply of pre-exposure prophylaxis HIV prevention medication, more commonly referred to as PrEP, to some patients.
Sen. Julian Cyr, who said he regularly takes PrEP himself as a gay man, told his colleagues he could think of “a half-dozen times” where a friend called asking to borrow a few doses because their prescription ran out or they were traveling.
The medication reduces the risk of contracting HIV by “about 99 percent,” Cyr said, praising it as “remarkably effective in significantly reducing and in some cases ending HIV transmission.”
“This has become essential, lifesaving medication, yet despite all that progress, the threat of HIV remains and access to PrEP continues to be challenging,” Cyr, a Truro Democrat, said.
Under the bill, pharmacists could distribute PrEP medication to eligible patients, but could not provide more than a 60-day supply to a single patient every two years.
Similar to the menstrual products measure, the Senate approved a PrEP access bill in June 2022 but it never received a vote in the House.