Women's Health: Plan B Is Now Behind the Counter
Broken condom? No worries. The over-the-counter emergency contraceptive Plan B is arriving in pharmacies this week and next. Approved for OTC use in August, Plan B is 89 percent effective at preventing pregnancy if taken within the first 72 hours of unprotected sex. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, nearly half of the more than 6 million pregnancies that occur each year are unplanned. The organization estimates that expanded access to Plan B could cut unintended pregnanciesand abortion ratesin half.
In approving the drug for OTC use, the Food and Drug Administration placed certain restrictions on its availability. No one under 18 can purchase the new Plan B (though younger girls can still get it by prescription). And it must be dispensed by a pharmacist, so it's not available outside of pharmacy hours. Packaged as two tablets that are taken 12 hours apart, Plan B (which contains the hormone progestin) can cause minor side effects like nausea, abdominal pain, dizziness, and breast tenderness. "I think it's a good idea for women to keep it in their home to have it readily available in emergencies," says Vivian Dickerson, who lobbied for FDA approval as president of ACOG and is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of CaliforniaIrvine. Prices vary, with CVS charging $44.99, and Wal-Mart about $35. You'll be paying the full cost out of pocket, though insurance plans will still cover the identical prescription version.
Women in some cases may still experience difficulty making a purchase. Four states (Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Dakota) have explicit laws allowing pharmacists to refuse to dispense emergency contraception if they are ethically opposed to it. And Wal-Mart, which until March would not stock the prescription version of Plan B, has announced that it will keep its "conscientious objection policy" in place to allow employees who do not "feel comfortable dispensing the product" to refer customers to another pharmacist to complete the sale. (That policy won't apply in the two states, California and Illinois, that require pharmacists to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception.) "We're concerned that the person staffing the pharmacy counter will put an impractical barrier in a woman's way that wouldn't be there if this was available on drugstore shelves," says Marcia Greenberger, copresident of the National Women's Law Center.