At the beginning of April, California became the third state to allow the sale of over-the-counter birth control, after Oregon and Washington. This new system allows patients to get contraceptives pills, patches and rings from a pharmacy without a doctor’s prescription. Instead, patients visit a local pharmacy at any time, complete a questionnaire with a pharmacist, get a pharmacist’s prescription and then receive their birth control.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that birth control is used by more than half the women of reproductive age in the U.S. Despite the prevalence of contraceptives, birth control is not as easy to get in most states as one might think. For this reason, over-the-counter birth control should be offered in every state.
On the simplest level, the new system takes some of the headache out of the current process of getting birth control, especially for women who have been on contraception for a while. In most states, getting a birth control prescription involves contacting a doctor, waiting for an available appointment and then going to the office to talk with the doctor about options. While this can be helpful for patients who are using birth control for the first time or are trying a new one, the process is cumbersome for those who just need to renew a prescription once their refills run out.
The system offered in California dramatically cuts down on time spent getting contraceptives. Rather than wasting time going to a doctor, patients can go to a pharmacy without an appointment, answer health questions to determine if birth control is safe for them, discuss options with a pharmacist and then receive their birth control. This system is perfect for women who just need a renewal.
Over-the-counter birth control also has the potential to be cheaper than using a doctor. Many patients have to pay some sort of fee when they visit a doctor, as well as another fee to actually get birth control from a pharmacy. At some pharmacies there is no fee to meet with a pharmacist, and if a patient’s insurance covers over-the-counter birth control, it has the potential to be completely free. Even if it isn’t free for other patients, the cost could still be lower than paying a copay in addition to the cost of birth control.
Finally, the new system would make birth control more available, especially in areas where it’s needed most. If single, impoverished women had the same access to contraceptives as their wealthier counterparts, their birth rates would likely be reduced by half, according to a study done by the Brookings Institution. That’s not to say poorer women should not have children, but they should have the ability to regulate menstrual cycle as easily as women in wealthier demographics.
Doctor’s offices and clinics are not always available in poorer areas of the U.S., and many of the people living in these places don’t have access to reliable transportation. But these areas often do have pharmacies like Walgreens. Some birth controls can be purchased for less than $10, so expanding over-the-counter birth control would make contraceptives and family planning a reality for patients in these areas.
Some people are concerned that cutting doctors out of the process can be dangerous for women who may not be healthy enough to use birth control. However, Dr. Daniel Grossman, vice president for research at Ibis Reproductive Health, told the New York Times, “There are studies showing that women can really accurately identify the conditions that make it appropriate to use certain contraceptives, using a simple checklist.”
For those who still have concerns about the safety of over-the-counter birth control, future implementation of the system can require first-time birth control users to get a prescription from a doctor, but then allow renewal of that prescription at a pharmacy once the refills run out.
Other opponents to over-the-counter birth control argue that the current way of doing things gets women into gynecologists’ offices for yearly exams. But a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that women who received over-the-counter birth control from a pharmacy in Mexico were no less likely to visit the doctor annually than women who got a doctor’s prescription.
The benefits of over-the-counter birth control far outweigh the concerns held for the new system, and changes can be made to make patients feel safer. Lawmakers in California, Oregon and Washington are moving in the right direction, though. The rest of the U.S. should follow suit and make birth control as accessible as it ought to be.