Two states will soon allow women to obtain contraceptives from a pharmacist without a doctor's prescription. Public health advocates hope this change could spread because it could help reduce the high rate of unintended pregnancy.
Most countries in North America and Europe require that a woman have a doctor's prescription before she can get hormonal contraceptives such as pills, patches, and rings. In the next few months, California and Oregon will allow women to obtain a prescription directly from the pharmacist, which will be more convenient and potentially less expensive than a visit to the doctor.
Pharmacists will be authorized to prescribe contraceptives after a process in which women fill out a questionnaire about their health and medical history. Health insurance will cover the prescription.
The new laws will make birth control more accessible, which is a goal of medical professionals and policy makers. About one in every two pregnancies in the United States is unplanned, which a higher rate than in Europe.
Some health groups say contraceptives should be available without a prescription. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) opposes the laws allowing pharmacists to prescribe because they believe that hormonal contraceptives should be available over the counter.
"My basic tenet is there should be nobody between the patient and the pill," Dr. Mark DeFrancesco, the president of ACOG, told The New York Times. "I'm afraid we're going to create a new model that becomes a barrier between that and over the counter. I worry that it's going to derail the over-the-counter movement."
Getting the Food and Drug Administration to approve over-the-counter status for birth control pills, however, could take a long time because it may ask for additional studies.
Cost could be an issue with over-the-counter status. The Affordable Care Act requires health plans to cover prescription drugs, but does not address covering nonprescription drugs. A woman might wind up paying for over-the-counter birth control instead of obtaining it free with a prescription.