This month, Oregon became the first state in the nation to allow women to get birth control pills or patches from a pharmacist without a doctor’s prescription. California has passed a similar law. But there are no plans to make such legislation common across the entire West Coast, with women’s health advocates believing there are better battles this year in Washington State.
In Oregon, the bill’s sponsor is Republican State Representative Knute Buehler, who has a medical degree. He said the law will alleviate the cost of a doctor’s appointment for women seeking contraception coverage, and prevent unintended pregnancies. Buehler cites a 2015 study in the journal Contraception which estimated that on-demand access to birth control could prevent between 7 and 25 percent of unplanned pregnancies.
California was actually the first state to pass such a bill, but it hasn’t been implemented yet -- the necessary administrative rules for pharmacists haven’t been established.
Erik Houser, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood’s advocacy arm in Washington, said the organization is waiting to see how the laws in Oregon and California “shake out” before attempting something similar in the state.
“Right now our women’s health policy coalition is focusing on other bills,” he said. “There’s a possibility that legislators will do something on this issue this year, but we haven’t heard about it. With a 60-day session, we’re focusing our efforts on the 12-months-of-birth-control issue.”
He's referring to the fact that most insurance policies in Washington provide one to three months of birth control at a time -- after this, women have to go back to the pharmacists. In 2015, Oregon changed this policy with a law requiring insurers to provide a full year of birth control coverage, something Houser hopes to replicate in the state
But the efforts of Washington state legislators to expand birth control access goes beyond Olympia. U.S. Senator Patty Murray is leading an effort in the Congress to get over-the-counter contraception for women covered by insurance, regardless of whether they have a prescription.
Murray’s argument is that birth control should be as affordable and accessible as possible. Some argue that requiring pharmacists to give out prescriptions for it is simply another barrier to access for women.
Mark S. DeFrancesco, President of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says that birth control is safe enough that women shouldn’t need a prescription at all. “Requiring a pharmacist to prescribe and dispense oral contraceptives only replaces one barrier — a physician's prescription — with another,” said DeFrancesco in a statement. “This is not going to allow us to reach women who remain underserved by the current prescribing requirements.”
But the debate is complicated. By eliminating the requirement for a prescription, some believe women will have less incentive to go to a doctor, and therefore less chances of getting important health check-ups. Dr. Jill Rabin from Northwell Health in New York told Live Science that because the new Oregon law doesn’t require women to get an annual checkup to get birth control, they might miss necessary care, like tests for cervical cancer or HPV.
Further, a study by researchers from the University of Washington found that the use of pharmacists in acquiring birth control made it more likely that underserved women would start and continue to use it. One year into the two-year study, more than 70 percent of the women surveyed said they were continuing to use contraception. The women were also willing to pay for contraception and even the out-of-pocket services of pharmacists, which were not covered by insurance.