Over-the-Counter Birth Control Could Be Next Stage in Family Planning for NJ

Allowing drugstores to sell birth control products without doctor’s exam, prescription should improve women’s health and financial stability, experts say

New Jersey is poised to be the fourth state in the nation — and the first on the East Coast — to allow pharmacies to sell birth control products over the counter to women without a doctor’s exam and prescription, a change that experts believe will better protect female health and financial stability.

Women would be required to fill out a form designed to identify potential health risks and discuss their options with a trained pharmacist before they could purchase a “self-administered hormonal contraceptive” like birth control pills, vaginal rings, or diaphragms under a new legislative proposal that has received bipartisan support in a hearing Monday. Emergency contraception, like the so-called morning-after pill, is already available without a prescription.

The state Pharmacists Association also supports the plan to sell advanced, hormonal contraception. But physicians and Planned Parenthood are taking a far more cautious approach.

California was the first to pass such a law, in 2013, but the regulatory structure took years to develop, so the over-the-counter option only became available in March. A similar law took effect in Oregon in January; Washington state will begin sales in June. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, lawmakers in Hawaii, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tennessee are also considering such legislation.

Experts, including those at the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, have long said there are many benefits to expanding access to women’s birth control. Nearly half the pregnancies in the nation are considered unexpected, researchers have found, and over-the-counter contraception would make it easier and less expensive for women to plan their families and control their future. However, over-the-counter contraception does not replace the need for traditional cancer screenings and other gynecological checkups, doctors have stressed.

The national shift toward over-the-counter contraception has also been supported by the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has studied the issue for years. Its research found that more than 150 countries permit drugstore sales of birth control pills and other therapies, either by law or informally. Data from El Paso, TX, showed that some American women there found it easier and cheaper to cross into Mexico to obtain their birth control pills.

[related]”As forms of contraceptives have advanced and modernized, the way women access most forms of birth control has not,” said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), a lead sponsor of the New Jersey measure. “Women must still take time from their schedule to see a doctor and get a prescription. More women are working and handling the everyday demands of life; fitting a doctor’s appointment into their day is just not always possible. Most pharmacies can accommodate walk-in patients and pharmacists can safely dispense contraception without a prescription.”

On Monday’s Turner’s bill was merged with a similar measure by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), chair of the Senate Health Committee; Vitale said the measure could have a full Senate vote in the coming weeks. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) has sponsored an Assembly version that awaits a committee hearing.

Representatives of the Pharmacists Association noted on Monday that many of their members are already offering flu shots and other minor treatments on site and counseling women on birth control choices fits that model. However, they said pharmacists might need to charge a small fee to cover their time. The Affordable Care Act requires that health insurance plans cover the cost of contraception, but it is not clear how drugstore staff would be compensated for counseling women on their choices.

Vitale said the bill would be further tweaked to address these concerns and to ensure insurance companies will still be responsible for the full cost of the products, even if no longer prescribed by a doctor. The Medical Society of New Jersey has declined to take a position on the measure, at least until the fee question is resolved.

Planned Parenthood of New Jersey also did not endorse the measure outright. The leading advocates for women’s healthcare in the state, the organization has been battling for six years to convince Gov. Chris Christie to include $7.5 million for family-planning services that had become standard under previous administrations. Since then, half-a-dozen women’s clinics have closed their doors.

“We at Planned Parenthood Action Fund of NJ applaud Senator Turner’s commitment to increasing access to birth control, and we encourage the rest of the New Jersey Legislature to follow suit on increasing access to contraception and other vital reproductive health services by restoring the $7.5 million in funding for family-planning services,” said Casey Olesko, a spokesperson for the group.