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Measure Letting Pharmacists Dole Out Birth Control Without Doctor’s Visit Awaiting Pritzker’s Signature

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The General Assembly on Monday sent Gov. JB Pritzker a bill that would allow pharmacists to hand out hormonal birth control to a patient who has not seen a doctor.

State Rep. Michelle Mussman (D, Schaumburg) sponsored the measure, which she said would boost access to birth control and limit unintended pregnancies. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy organization supporting access to contraception, in Illinois, 41 percent of pregnancies in the state are unintended.

“It certainly opens up a lot more pathways than having to go see a doctor, which we know can be quite an obstacle,” Mussman said. “Even if you have insurance, sometimes there are delays in your ability to make an appointment. It can be a bigger hurdle than many people realize.’’

The lack of access can be particularly difficult in some underserved areas, said Brigid Leahy, senior director of public policy with Planned Parenthood Illinois Action.

“It really does help provide greater access, particularly in areas where it may be hard to find a provider, a nurse practitioner or physician who you can get in quickly, but … you can go to your pharmacy and get this in a very quick fashion,” Leahy said.

The measure doesn’t set a minimum age for those seeking contraceptives without first seeing a doctor, which sparked opposition to the legislation. The conservative Pro-Family Alliance was against the measure, and alliance spokesman

Ralph Rivera said minors should at least first have a physical before getting on birth control.

“Under the current laws, they have to go to a practitioner, that's a physician, or a physician assistant, or advanced practice certified nurse,” Rivera said. “So they would go and talk with them. In this case, they don't have to do that. They can just go to a pharmacist..”

Mussman said a full-on doctor's visit is not required to be able to be prescribed hormonal contraception.

“Just like at a doctor's office, you would fill out a health questionnaire, and based on the answers to the questionnaire, the pharmacist would be trained to determine whether or not you wanted hormonal contraception as your choice that would work best for you,” Mussman said. “And if so, whether or not you are an appropriate candidate to be able to receive it. And if you are, they would then be able to give it to you.“

Leahy said a body of research exists that shows younger patients are capable of “making informed decisions around contraceptive use — that they understand and can follow the directions on how to take the medication.”

“There is no reason that they need to see a physician or a nurse practitioner before starting birth control,” Leahy said..’’

Direct access to hormonal birth control from a pharmacist happens now in 40 nations as well as 16 states and the District of Columbia.

“Pharmacists are highly trained health care professionals; they are perfectly capable of doing the assessment of the patient, no matter their age, assessing whether that method of contraception is appropriate,” Leahy said.

Garth Reynolds, executive director Illinois Pharmacists Association, said he expects most of his members will takt the option to dispense hormonal contraceptives.

“Pharmacists are the most accessible health care providers in our communities,” Reynolds said. “And I think the COVID pandemic really put a spotlight on that … that pharmacists are available to assist,’’ he said.

The legislation includes an exception for pharmacists who have religious or moral objections to birth control so they can’t be required to distribute contraceptives.

Hormonal contraception, including pills, the transdermal patch or the vaginal ring can be dispersed by a pharmacist, but other methods, such as an IUD, would require a visit to a medical practitioner, Reynolds said.

Under the bill, pharmacist-provided birth control would be covered by insurance, including Medicaid.

If enacted, the bill would become effective in January 2022, with the exception for the insurance-related provision.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.