California Birth Control Law Allows Pharmacists To Dispense Contraception Practically Over-The-Counter

Over-the-counter birth control is now fundamentally available to women in California directly from a pharmacy. A new law went into effect on Friday allowing pharmacists to distribute self-administered hormonal contraceptives, including transdermal, vaginal, and injection birth control.

“There are no restrictions for women to get birth control from their pharmacist,” said Jon Roth, CEO of California Pharmacists Association. “The only restriction would be if, during the medical screening, the pharmacist determines a contraindication clinically.”

The California Pharmacists Association, which represents over 6,500 pharmacies, sponsored the original legislation.

New law in California permits pharmacists to dispense birth control without prescription.
New California legislation allows easier access to birth control for women of all ages. [Photo Illustration by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]
As reported previously by NBC News, the California legislature passed the law in 2013 with the intent to increase availability of birth control and reduce the number of accidental pregnancies. Yet, due to significant regulatory hurdles, the over-the-counter option did not officially become available until Friday. Nonetheless, many pharmacies are still not ready to provide the service and numerous pharmacists are still undergoing training.

While the law provides more access to contraception, the option isn’t exactly over-the-counter. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has restrictions in place that prevent many drugs, including birth control, from being truly over-the-counter. The California law only increases access by allowing women to skip the doctor’s visit and go directly to the pharmacy without a prescription from a doctor.

To get birth control, a woman will need to answer some questions about her health as well as consult with a pharmacist to determine the most appropriate contraceptive method. A woman’s blood pressure will have to be measured if the particular method poses a high blood pressure risk.

After the consultation, a woman can request a specific type or ask the pharmacist for a recommendation. Once the method is chosen, instructions for use and information regarding side effects will be explained. Some methods, like implants or intrauterine devices, are only available from a doctor.

Any insurance plan that covers the cost of birth control should be able to pay the pharmacy directly. However, it is not yet certain if pharmacies will be charging for the initial consultation.

“Community pharmacies are the face of neighborhood health care — open beyond normal business hours, and patients do not need an appointment to see their pharmacist,” Roth said. “That means pharmacists providing contraception will go a long way to expand women’s birth control.”

Opponents to the law believe it sends the wrong message to young girls.

“The ability to get contraceptives from yet another source is not a benefit to young people,” said California Right to Life spokeswoman Camille Giglio. “It is a barrier to communication between a mother and a child.”

Others fear that unexpected health complications can arise and important medical advice could be missed. Dr. Deepjot Singh with Torrance Memorial Medical Center supports easier access to birth control for women, but prefers a doctor be consulted first to help select the best contraception method.

The California Medical Association initially opposed the law but decided to remain neutral as long as a consultation with the pharmacist was required.

Advocates of the California birth control law contend pharmacists are highly knowledgeable about a drug’s side effects. If a pharmacist can’t answer a specific question or thinks a patient needs additional medical advice, they can make a recommendation to visit a physician.

“The point isn’t that women have to go to a pharmacy, it’s just one more option,” said USC clinical pharmacy professor Kathleen Besinque.

Many health experts and several studies have indicated birth control is reasonably safe, particularly when a woman chooses the method that works best for them. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists currently support federal legislation that would make many contraception methods truly over-the-counter.

The California birth control law is the third in the nation to remove the need for a prescription. Oregon and Washington already have similar legislation in place. Three other states, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Alaska, are also working on their own versions of an over-the-counter law.

[Photo by Tim Matsui/Getty Images]