A guest post by Gwen Emmons.
Turns out, some pharmacists don’t need an HHS decision to block young women’s access to Plan B. A new study suggests that in some pharmacies, misinformation around emergency contraception (EC) accessibility abounds – particularly in lower-income communities.
Researchers called pharmacies in five major cities to inquire about the availability of Plan B (a helpful flowchart of their script is here). The good news? 80% of them said it was available, up from previous studies (that 20% of pharmacies surveyed said they didn’t carry it – or claimed they didn’t – is still baffling).
The bad news? When the caller claimed to be 17, 19% of pharmacists claimed she couldn’t receive emergency contraception (even with a prescription) – which is false.
But what’s most troubling is that this misinformation was more frequently given by pharmacists in low-income neighborhoods. 23.7% of pharmacies in poorer communities gave the caller the wrong information, compared to 14.6% of pharmacies in higher income communities. Plus, in almost all the calls to these pharmacies, the minimum age for over-the-counter access (17) was incorrectly stated.
Misinformation like this threatens to unnecessarily imperil young women seeking the medical care they deserve. When it comes to EC, the clock is ticking. If a young woman isn’t entirely dissuaded from her interaction with an ill-informed pharmacist, by the time she does receive the correct information, it could be too late for her to take EC.
Couple this with a laundry list of barriers to accessing reproductive health care in poorer communities, and we’ve got a big problem on our hands. We already know that there are gaping disparities in health care access for young women in poor communities – disparities that only widen when it comes to things like receiving accurate and comprehensive sex ed, obtaining contraception, and getting annual exams. Being denied Plan B serves to further marginalize this group of young women. It’s little wonder we’ve seen the rate of unplanned pregnancies among low-income women skyrocket – the very limited window of options available to them is becoming narrower each day.
Contrary to what researchers conclude, their findings aren’t just proof that pharmacists need to be better educated on the rules and restrictions around Plan B. While the restrictions around EC have changed in recent years, it’s a pharmacist’s job – and responsibility – to follow these changes and adjust their practice accordingly. Indeed, many, many pharmacists do just that – but clearly, not enough are.
What it does suggest is that even with looser restrictions on who can access Plan B, barriers still exist, whether they’re due to a lack of awareness or a willful desire to restrict access. Providing Plan B over the counter would eliminate the (potentially unreliable) middleperson, ensuring a product that is safe and sometimes necessary is available to anyone, regardless of her situation, and regardless of what someone thinks they need. While this just adds to the litany of reasons why the Obama Administration’s decision to keep Plan B off the list of medications already available OTC is misguided, I doubt it will do much to reverse their decision. Let’s hope I’m wrong.