South Carolinians can soon access birth control without doctor’s prescription

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Published: Jul. 12, 2022 at 6:45 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A pharmaceutical company is now asking the Food and Drug Administration for approval to make birth control available over the counter nationwide.

The company, HRA Pharma, said it does not expect an answer on this request until next year, but a new state law will soon expand access to contraception for more South Carolinians.

The “Pharmacy Access Act” will allow pharmacists to directly dispense some forms of birth control without patients needing a doctor’s prescription.

It passed both chambers of the state’s General Assembly with strong bipartisan support in the most recent legislative session, and after Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed it into law, he told reporters this law would do away with unnecessary government regulations and could help reduce abortions.

“If South Carolina wants to be a pro-life state, then we must provide the means for people to avoid unwanted pregnancies, and that law makes it easier to do that, so that’s a good step,” McMaster said.

Supporters believe it will help South Carolinians in even more ways, including by saving them time and money by allowing them to skip an additional trip to the doctor’s office.

“The cost of having to go to the doctor simply to have to get a prescription sometimes is a barrier,” Rep. Russell Ott, D – Calhoun, said.

Ott worked to get this legislation, a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort County, passed in the state’s House of Representatives this year after senators approved it the year before.

He said it will especially help rural parts of South Carolina, like his district, where the doctors who have been needed to write prescriptions for birth control may not be located close to their patients.

However, a pharmacy likely is nearby.

“Pharmacists are, a lot of times, the group of individuals that patients know,” Ott said. “They know them intimately. They know them on a first-name basis. They’re engrained in the communities, and so people are able to go to them much easier than they can get an appointment for a doctor.”

Under the law, pharmacists will be able to dispense self-administered birth control and inject birth control shots, as they can do with vaccines. Contraception that requires implantation or insertion, such as IUDs, will still require a trip to the doctor.

Patients younger than 18 will need to show they have a previous birth control prescription from a doctor.

Dr. Patti Fabel, a clinical associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Pharmacy, said expanded access to contraception should help boost the state’s maternal health.

“If you look at the data, maternal health rates in the southeast, particularly in South Carolina, are some of the worst in the country, and one of the best ways to improve maternal health outcomes is to prevent pregnancies in the first place, particularly if those pregnancies end up being unwanted,” she said.

Birth control will still be covered under private insurance and Medicaid, Ott said.

But Fabel said the law does not account for all the barriers to contraceptive access, including payment and insurance coverage, so South Carolinians who are uninsured or underinsured may still not be able to access it if they cannot afford out-of-pocket payments.

“We hope that we can refer to them to resources where they can access them at low cost or no cost, but that piece still needs to be addressed,” Fabel said.

While the new law is now on the books, South Carolina pharmacists can’t dispense birth control without a prescription just yet.

The State Board of Medical Examiners and State Board of Pharmacy have until early December to draft protocol for how this will work, including outlining additional training pharmacists would need and situations in which they would not be able to dispense birth control without a doctor’s visit.

Pharmacists will also be allowed to opt out if they do not want to participate.

“I don’t think it’s going to be overly burdensome or cumbersome at all,” Ott said. “I think we could absolutely have this being in effect by as early as January of next year.”

In response to worries that some patients may skip visits to the gynecologist if it is no longer needed to access birth control, the law requires pharmacists disclose patients with information regarding the importance of these appointments.

Following the US Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade last month, there are concerns that guaranteed access to contraceptives could be struck down in the future too.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas even wrote in a concurring opinion on the Roe overturn that he thinks the court should review precedents including the one regarding contraception access, Griswold v. Connecticut.

Ott said while no one can predict what the Supreme Court will do in the future, he is not concerned about the future of this state law.

“With South Carolina passing this law now, I think we’re sending a strong message that we understand the benefits of contraception, so I feel like that is a good place for us to be,” Ott said.

More than a dozen other states, including North Carolina, and the District of Columbia already offer this option.

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