Amidst the pandemic headlines, you may have missed that in April, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed into law a bill allowing pharmacists to dispense self-administered birth control (like pills and patches), as well as the injection, directly to patients over 18. (The bill also allows pharmacists to furnish opioid antagonists, epinephrine, fluoride supplements and prenatal vitamins that require a prescription. Pharmacists can also dispense prescription medications if they cost less than an over-the-counter version.) This is a great move toward making birth control prescriptions easier to access, especially at a time when visiting a doctor’s office or clinic is undesirable or even impossible.

Virginia is now the 12th state (plus Washington, D.C.) to allow pharmacists to prescribe contraception since 2015, and this pharmacy access model has caught on for several reasons.

First, hormonal contraception is safe and effective; women have shown the ability to self-identify contraindications for birth control, even without interacting with a physician. While this would indicate that these forms of hormonal birth control are safe for over-the-counter access, moving to over-the-counter status requires approval in a lengthy Food and Drug Administration (FDA) application process.

In the meantime, states can disintermediate access by allowing pharmacists to prescribe, which points to the second reason that the pharmacy access model is spreading: Pharmacists are capable of providing quality care for patients when it comes to medication regimens. They are experts in medication, which allows them to prescribe widely used, low-risk drugs like birth control pills.

And finally, pharmacies are often more accessible than doctor’s offices or even clinics. Over 19 million women in America live in “contraceptive deserts,” meaning they aren’t in reasonable proximity to a clinic that offers a full range of contraceptive methods. However, 82 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a CVS pharmacy, and pharmacies offer longer hours than the traditional nine-to-five of a doctor’s office.

Results suggest that allowing pharmacists to prescribe birth control is the right move. In Oregon, where the pharmacy access model was first implemented in 2016, pharmacist prescribing has directly resulted in fewer unintended pregnancies, a decrease in publicly funded healthcare costs related to unintended pregnancies and an increase in women accessing hormonal birth control. Of the women who received their prescription from a pharmacist in the first two years after the new model took effect, over 73 percent of them had not been on a hormonal method the month prior. The pharmacy access model helps those who struggle to obtain birth control through a doctor or advanced practice nurse. The results in Oregon have proven so.

The new law in Virginia couldn’t come at a better time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that patients delay any routine doctor visits, and many small medical practices have either temporarily closed their doors or experienced a decline in patient visits.

Pharmacists have helped millions across the country maintain their medication regimens and refill prescriptions early to avoid extra trips and virus exposure. They can continue to contribute to patient care in even better ways during the new normal, as the pharmacy access model has shown—if only more state legislators will let them.

Image credit: Image Point Fr

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