January 8 2013

Who Pays for Free Breast Pumps?

Carrie L. Lukas

The headline writers for the UK Daily Mail got it right when they wrote “Breast pump industry booming thanks to Obamacare as new moms take advantage of new laws.” 

It’s an important distinction—the breast pump industry, not new moms themselves, are the biggest winners from a regulation that makes pumps “free” to new moms.  It would have been even more accurate to write “selected breast pump companies” are the biggest winners, since not all companies will benefit equally and some could be harmed by the program, but I know that headline writers can only do so much.

Before I go on, I guess I need to do the usual caveats:  I’m a mother of four who has breastfed them all; my youngest is nearly 10 months and has had almost no formula.  I’ve read and accepted the research saying that breast feeding is best for babies and I encourage other moms to give it a try.  Yes, I get that there are positive externalities to breast feeding, so it makes sense for society to try to make it easier for moms to do so. 

But are free breast pumps really the answer?

 First, it’s important to note that breast pump aren’t “free” so really the cost of providing breast pumps for new moms is built into the cost of premiums so we all pay for the pumps instead of the new moms (and it’s all these “free” items that is making premium prices soar). 

Furthermore, while certainly new moms will benefit from getting a free pump and some may even be encouraged to breastfeed more as a result, one shouldn’t just assume that this program is great in terms of encouraging breastfeeding.  This regulation will essentially end the normal functioning market for breast pumps.  Some breast pump providers are getting contracts to provide government-paid-for pumps.  Others aren’t.  This means that those providers will no longer be focused on making their products appealing to new moms, but rather to the government officials who decide whether or not they keep their contracts.  Price is unlikely to matter much and innovation is likely to slow.  That’s a problem:  Even with a good pump, pumping is no fun.  I’d hope that there were plenty of entrepreneurs out there trying to find ways to make pumping a less awful experience – faster and more comfortable.  Yet the chance of new breakthroughs slows when government gets in the way of real competition.

Finally, these giveaways will undoubtedly lead to great overconsumption.  If you are a stay-at-home mom who is not going to leave your child much, then you probably don’t need a $300 pump.  You really don’t need a new pump with each child, if you take care of it.

I recall after the birth of my third child finding among the bags of stuff that you are given when you are leaving the hospital a new set of hoses and bottles and shields—all that plastic stuff that goes with your pump and retails somewhere around $30 to $50.  I went home and in getting out my pump – which I got for when I had my first child four years earlier and was still working fine – I dumped out all the old plastic stuff that I had neatly stored.  I suppose my insurance company thought it was a worthwhile investment to try to encourage women like me to nurse, but it sure did seem like a waste.

And you can be sure that while there will be winners—some pump providers and some new moms—there will be a lot of losers and a lot of waste from this federally-required giveaway too.

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