Some Pharmacies Don't Follow the Law When it Comes to Emergency Contraception

According to a new study, obtaining Plan B can be a lot harder than it looks. And when you're a 17-year-old in a poor neighborhood, the statistics are bleak.

Some Pharmacies Don’t Follow the Law When it Comes to Emergency Contraception

According to a new study, obtaining Plan B can be a lot harder than it looks. And when you’re a 17-year-old in a poor neighborhood, the statistics are bleak.

-Diana Denza

Plan B cover

Last month, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the Food and Drug Administration’s attempt to make emergency contraception available over the counter to all young women of childbearing age. Nevertheless, a 2009 law continues to make non-prescription access to Plan B legal for women 17 and older.

The problem is, not all pharmacies are following the law when it comes to dispensing emergency contraception. For young women–especially those who reside in poor communities– legal rights don’t always guarantee access.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month, nearly one in five research assistants posing as 17-year-olds were immediately denied access to Plan B after revealing their age. The assistants phoned commercial pharmacies (like Walgreens and CVS) located in major U.S. cities including Nashville, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Austin, and Portland. Calls were made during regular business hours from September to December 2010.

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“I was surprised by this statistic because I had no idea until all the calls were completed how often the adolescent callers were being told they couldn’t get this medication at all simply based on their age,” Tracey Wilkinson, MD, MPH, of Boston Medical Center and the study’s lead author, told us. “We expected there to be confusion around whether a prescription was required or not –but had no expectation that adolescent callers would be completely denied access to the medication entirely because of their age.”

The kicker: this denial of lawful access occurred almost twice as often (23.7 percent vs. 14.6 percent) in pharmacies located in low income neighborhoods. In addition, pharmacy staff in these neighborhoods was significantly less likely (50.0 percent vs. 62.8 percent) to provide callers the correct age for obtaining the drug. Wilkinson reported that the most commonly cited age for obtaining Plan B over the counter was 18 years old.

“We are not sure as to why our outcomes restricting access occurred more often in low-income neighborhoods –it could be due to the frequency the pharmacy deals with requests or questions for EC or customers that feel less able to advocate for themselves,” Wilkinson explained. “However, we do know that this misinformation is more often present in low-income areas and creates an additional barrier for adolescents to access this medication and a highly effective form of pregnancy prevention.”

The study also found that same-day access to the drug was unavailable to all women in about 16 percent of the pharmacies reached. And in situations when women must have emergency contraception, lost hours attempting to get ahold of Plan B can result in an unwanted pregnancy.

So, what can we all do to combat the erroneous information surrounding Plan B? Well, according to the study’s authors, waging an information campaign might be necessary for young women to finally receive the access they are entitled to by law.

“Our study highlights that the current rules regarding dispensing of emergency contraception does not assure timely access for adolescents –whether they are denied access altogether or are told they need to obtain a prescription first,” Wilkinson said. “Thus, adolescents who may be at highest risk of an unplanned pregnancy cannot access a safe and highly-efficacious medication to prevent pregnancy. Hopefully, by shining a light on this situation there can be coordinated efforts from a variety of arenas to help prevent it from continuing and thus improve access to emergency contraception for everyone.”

Diana Denza is a regular contributor to BettyConfidential.

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