In 2013, teen pregnancy in Massachusetts reached an historic low. As the Massachusetts Department of Public Health noted, this achievement was largely in part thanks to better access to contraception, and more education around reproductive practices. Teen pregnancies bring with them a myriad of negative outcomes. Teen mothers are less likely to get an education, more likely to give birth to babies with health issues, and have lower incomes over their lifetimes. The benefits of increasing access to safe and effective contraception cannot be understated. Which, is why easing access to safe and effective contraception should continue to be of primary concern for Massachusetts policymakers.
The start of the new legislative session has brought with it a new proposal that would address this issue. SD.102, introduced by Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury, would allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control pills and patches to patients over 18, as well as those under 18 if they have had a previous birth control prescription from a doctor. Few, if any, risks are associated with this proposal, but there is massive upside to it.
While the rate of unintended pregnancies is moving in a positive direction nationally, in 2011, 47 percent of pregnancies in Massachusetts were unintended. These pregnancies come with significant costs not only to women and their families, but to taxpayers. In 2010, the public funded the medical expenses associated with 56 percent of unintended births in the commonwealth, costing taxpayers almost $358 million — $138 million of which was shouldered by the state. Decreasing the number of unintended pregnancies would thus save taxpayer dollars at both the state and federal level.
Currently, obtaining a birth control prescription in Massachusetts requires a doctor’s appointment in which a patient must provide answers to a medical questionnaire, take a blood pressure test, and discuss which birth control options are best for her. These are all tasks that pharmacists are well-equipped to perform safely and effectively.
Nearly one-third of women of reproductive age use short-acting hormonal contraception, which includes transdermal patches, birth control injections or birth control pills. The latter are the most popular form of female contraception in Massachusetts. Improving access to these medications means that more women will be able to use birth control for better family planning. And since pharmacists are typically much easier to access than physicians, the pharmacy access model will help ease access to hormonal birth control prescriptions. Women who live in rural or low-income areas stand to gain the most from this model, since these women often have limited access to physicians.
Many doctors agree that better access to contraception is critically important for women’s health care. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — America’s largest organization of women’s health specialists — goes a step further than the pharmacy access model by advocating over-the-counter access to birth control. Unfortunately only the federal government can authorize over-the-counter access, but in the meantime, 10 states and the District of Columbia have already enacted pharmacy access legislation.
Simply put, women shouldn’t have to make a doctor’s appointment to obtain birth control. Allowing pharmacists to prescribe contraceptives reduces regulation, increases health care options for women, and could save millions of taxpayer dollars currently spent on unintended pregnancies. Allowing more women to use the family planning tool of their choice — with no additional risks — would thus benefit Massachusetts immensely.