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Growing Number Of Pharmacies Across West Can Prescribe Birth Control

Policies on whether pharmacists can prescribe contraception vary by state.
Thought Catalog
Policies on whether pharmacists can prescribe contraception vary by state.

A growing number of pharmacists across the country are now offering birth control directly to patients -- no doctor’s visit required. That includes pharmacists at grocery stores in the Kroger chain -- like Fred Meyers, King Soopers, City Market and Smith’s -- in addition to Albertson’s and Safeway stores.

Pharmacists first started writing prescriptions for contraceptives in Oregon back in 2015. According to the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations, at least eight other states have followed suit, including Colorado, Idaho, and Utah.  

“In Colorado it’s something we’ve been doing since June of 2017,” said Kim Ward, the pharmacy regional clinical manager with Kroger Health, which said in a press release that offering this service is part of its “mission to simplify healthcare.” “We have 147 King Soopers and City Market pharmacies in the state of Colorado, and every one of them is participating in this service.”

The details of who can get what varies depending on the state. In Colorado, people have to be over the age of 18 and fit certain criteria, like not having high blood pressure. Ward said high blood pressure is one of the most common reasons Kroger pharmacies end up having to send customers to see doctors for their prescriptions. She said their pharmacists can prescribe pills and patches, but not vaginal rings or hormonal injections.

Last month the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists put out a statement saying birth control access shouldn’t require a prescription at all -- it should be as easy as buying condoms, coffee or anything else in a grocery store.

“Some states are currently implementing direct access to hormonal contraception at pharmacies or through online ordering, but over-the-counter access should be the ultimate goal,” the statement read. “Vaginal rings, the contraceptive patch, and (injections like Depo-Provera) are safe and should be available over the counter with no age restrictions.”

Dr. Luu Ireland, who worked with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on updating those recommendations, said the move by Kroger is a step in the right direction. 

“We’re definitely in support of all steps to improve access to birth control for patients, but we would push even further and say that women should be able to go directly to the pharmacy without talking to anybody and pick up a birth control method,” said Ireland. 

“As it stands right now, a person who wants to prevent pregnancy has to call and make an appointment to see a doctor, see the physician or healthcare provider, get a prescription, then go to a pharmacist and obtain birth control,” she added. “We have a lot of evidence at this point through multiple studies that show that a lot of those requirements are unnecessary. People are able to self-screen safely to understand whether or not they are a candidate for hormonal birth control.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization focused on sexual and reproductive health, in 2008 about 40% of unintended pregnancies were tied to inconsistent use of contraception.

“There are a lot of reasons for inconsistent contraceptive use. One is that our lives are chaotic and we might not be able to make it to the physician's office,” said Elizabeth Nash, who follows state policy on reproductive health issues at the Guttmacher Institute. “Being able to go to the pharmacy without having to first get a prescription simplifies your life a little bit so that you don’t miss a month or a week.”

A long list of smartphone apps allow users to order birth control without leaving their homes.  

But, Luu Ireland said, “Not everybody has access to the internet. Not everybody has the technological savviness to be able to use an app to order their birth control. Some of the apps require that you already have a prescription from a healthcare provider. So I do think that there is a place for being able to go to the grocery store, talk to your pharmacist, and get birth control.”

And, Elizabeth Nash added, perhaps the growing number of grocery store pharmacies offering a more straightforward approach to obtaining contraception will help set the stage for over-the-counter access in the future.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
Rae Ellen Bichell
I cover the Rocky Mountain West, with a focus on land and water management, growth in the expanding west, issues facing the rural west, and western culture and heritage. I joined KUNC in January 2018 as part of a new regional collaboration between stations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Please send along your thoughts/ideas/questions!
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