Monday, May 05, 2008

Many Women Unaware of Access to Emergency Contraception

By Alison Mondi

Since emergency contraception was approved by the FDA in 1998, Washington’s pharmacists and lawmakers have led the nation in ensuring that women have access to this safe and effective form of birth control. Yet many women are still unaware of the many resources and programs our state provides to ensure that they can access Plan B.

The FDA approved Plan B for over-the-counter sales to women over the age of 18 in 2006. However few women are aware that Washington passed a law in 1998 allowing pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception without a doctor's prescription. This program -- known as Pharmacy Access -- allows all women, regardless of age, to obtain Plan B without a prescription at participating pharmacies and goes a long way toward removing the age-barrier to over-the-counter Plan B access.

In April 2007 the Washington State Board of Pharmacy took a further step to ensure women’s access to Plan B emergency contraception by unanimously approving two rules that protect access to valid prescription and behind-the-counter medications. Unfortunately opponents to Plan B access have obtained an injunction which currently puts these rules on hold and allows pharmacists to refuse to dispense emergency contraception for personal, non-medical reasons.

The ongoing challenge to Plan B availability led NARAL Pro-Choice Washington Foundation to launch the Emergency Contraception Access Project to better understand how accessible Plan B is for women across the state. Using lists supplied by the Pharmacy Board, we compiled a comprehensive list of all the pharmacies in the state then recruited project volunteers to survey these pharmacies by phone regarding their stocking, prescribing and billing policies for Plan B. The results can be seen on an interactive map on our website.

What did we find? On the positive side, the survey indicates that a woman can obtain Plan B at the majority of pharmacies across the state. But we were surprised to find, in a state as progressive as Washington, that 10 percent of surveyed pharmacies did not stock or refused to dispense Plan B.

Unfortunately availability is not the same as accessibility. Depending on the pharmacy Plan B retails for up to $80 for a single dose, greatly impeding access. Fortunately for some low-income women, Washington State’s Medicaid and Take Charge programs will cover the cost of family planning supplies and medications, which includes Plan B.

Yet we found in the course of our study, that 24 percent of pharmacists surveyed were either unaware that the Medicaid reimburses pharmacy providers for Plan B for eligible clients, or had never utilized the option.

This is a problem to which better education for pharmacists might help. That is why the next phase of the Emergency Contraception Access Project involves distributing informational brochures about Medicaid and Plan B to pharmacies and community service offices throughout the state. Low-income women, like all women, should not be denied assistance the state specifically set out to give them.

Washington State’s pharmacists have been leaders in the effort to increase women’s access to Plan B. Ensuring that low-income women are aware of the full range of payment options regarding Plan B is the next step in ensuring that all women in Washington have access to this form of contraception.
Alison Mondi is the communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. Click here for an interactive map of availability of emergency contraception in Washington State.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Washington Forum. 4/08

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