What would it mean if over-the-counter birth control were available in Lawrence?

LawrenceWomen is where we will unpack nationally publicized women’s issues and find out what they mean on a local level. Read the introduction post here.

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Birth control, and access to it, has been debated heavily this year. Conversations about over-the-counter (OTC) birth control generated national buzz after several Republican Senate candidates publicly endorsed it.

Some critics of the Republican support for OTC birth control claim it is purely a political move to capture female voters, because the candidates all openly oppose abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance policies pay for preventive care with no deductibles or co-pays.

Cory Gardner’s (R-Colo.) reasoning, according to a column published in the Denver Post, is that over-the-counter pharmaceuticals “get dramatically cheaper and consumers save time and hassle by avoiding unnecessary doctors’ appointments just to get the pharmaceuticals they already know they need.”

However, those who are not buying into the GOP’s reasons are concerned that it would be too expensive for many women, unless insurance companies continue to cover it. In some cases, birth control costs women up to $600 annually.

This issue is not new — advocates for OTC birth control have been talking about it for a while. Just like Republican Senate candidate Gardner, OTC birth control supporters say some pros on the issue are wider accessibility and more convenience for busy women. But, more importantly to that side, doctor groups and pharmacists support OTC birth control.

The national conversation:

Huffington Post — Planned Parenthood’s ad hits GOP candidates on OTC birth control
The Federalist — Politicians want you to depend on them for birth control: Liberals are accusing Republicans of wanting to deny women access to birth control because Republicans want to make birth control more accessible to women.
The Baltimore Sun — Editorial: Birth control bait-and-switch
USA Today — Column: Republicans’ fake birth control promises



But what would it mean locally?

Trent Scott is a pharmacist at Sigler Pharmacy on 18th Street, and he believes that people can trust the regulatory bodies, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to determine whether drugs should be available without a prescription.

“If we can rely on the FDA to deem it safe for a regular consumer, then I don’t know why we (pharmacists) would consider it not to be,” Scott said. “At the very least, have a conversation (with your pharmacist) about what to expect when taking medications and what the possible side effects might be.”

Dr. Ryan Neuhofel, who is a family doctor at NeuCare Family Medicine, says it’s always best to consult with someone — he recommends talking with your physician — before taking any medicines, even ones that are over-the-counter already.

“I think birth control, in the vast majority of women, is safe,” Neuhofel said. “I don’t think it would pose a huge risk to take it, in terms of a safety profile.”

The potential downside, however, is one that skeptics have pointed out before: Without consulting a doctor, women must rely on themselves to self-screen and determine whether the medication is safe for them.

Though birth control is safe for most women, those who are older than 35 and smoke have an increased risk of blood clots.

Neuhofel pointed out that one could make the same argument for other OTC medications. For example, alcoholics should not take Tylenol. There are medicines that are more benign than birth control already available over-the-counter, and there are also medications that could pose a greater threat, he said.

Both health care professionals noted the price difference and convenience of OTC birth control as important factors for their customers and patients.

Scott said that he could not speak to the cost of OTC birth control, but he knows it would probably be more expensive than a typical OTC drug.

However, Neuhofel guesses that birth control would become less expensive than it is currently. This is true of most pharmaceuticals that become available over-the-counter, like allergy medications.

In addition to being cheaper, Neuhofel says, OTC birth control would be more convenient for his patients.

Scott agreed.

“As far as our patient population, do I think it’s something that could be utilized?” Scott said. “Absolutely.”

What would it mean for you?

Neuhofel says the debate about OTC birth control is more a question of “is this medically appropriate?” than a political or ethical one.

“It’s clearly something that millions of women do every day,” Dr. Neuhofel said. “The difficulty in discussing this topic is that people always bring political beliefs into it.”

Do you think the benefits outweigh the risks? Can women be held accountable to self-screen for health risks if given the ability to purchase birth control pills OTC? Do you think this move could help lower the unintended pregnancy rates, which have been at 50 percent for the past 20 years? What do you think?

Comment below or email me at kkutsko@ljworld.com to continue the conversation.