Wal-Mart Pharmacies Offer More Access to Plan B

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s decision last week carrying Plan B – often referred to as the morning-after pill – has brought the issue of women's access to emergency contraceptives to 4,000 pharmacies in Wal-Marts and SAM'S CLUBs across the country.

The decision comes after three Massachusetts women sued Wal-Mart for refusing to sell them emergency contraceptives, and the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Pharmacy ruled that Wal-Mart was required to carry the pills. All Wal-Mart stores' pharmacies will begin carrying the medication March 20.

Emergency contraception is a more concentrated dose of ordinary birth control pills and must be taken within 72 hours of having sex to be effective.

Ron Chomiuk, vice president of pharmacy for Wal-Mart, said in a statement the company expected more states to require the sale of emergency contraceptives in the coming months. Only Illinois and Massachusetts mandate the sale of emergency contraceptives by law.

Chomiuk said this made it difficult for his company to justify being the only major pharmacy not selling Plan B.

Larry Lockhart, University Health Center chief pharmacist, said emergency contraceptives are carried at the University Health Center at a reduced price of $20. Like other medical visits, students who need to see a physician at the center to obtain a prescription for the contraceptive are not charged for the appointment.

Bobbie Kierstead, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Nebraska and Council Bluffs, said she didn't see the availability of emergency contraceptives at one retailer as having an impact on Nebraska's effort to prevent unintended pregnancies.

A recent study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches reproductive health, ranked Nebraska last in the nation in preventing unintended pregnancies.

Kierstead said increased access to emergency contraceptives was only one area in which the state needs improvement, although she considered the drug one of the keys to preventing unintended pregnancies, which make up half of all total pregnancies in the U.S.

The Guttmacher Institute study also took into account a state's allocation of public funds for family planning as well as laws and policies that promote access to contraceptive information and services.

Pat Tetreault, sexuality education coordinator for the University Health Center, said she thought people would be more likely to use emergency contraceptives if they were more accessible.

Because Plan B must be taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse, she said this makes it even harder for people in rural Nebraska, where resources are limited and long drives are usually required to fill prescriptions.

But the battle over emergency contraception isn't over as the debate will continue to focus on the question of “over-the counter'' access.

Petitions asking Wal-Mart to carry the medication were collected from 31,000 people, said Ted Miller, communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America based in Washington. Miller said supporters urged Wal-Mart officials to end what could be seen as a discriminatory policy.

Miller said his organization would continue working to gain over-the-counter access of Plan B. He noted that a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel of scientists recommended the over-the-counter sale of the drug in 2003, although the FDA didn't give the approval for over-the-counter sales, citing the need for more information on how the drug would affect adolescent women.

Miller described Plan B as an “ideal way'' to prevent unwanted pregnancy for rape and incest victims.

Greg Schleppenbach, director of anti-abortion activities for the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said he was disappointed with the decision of Wal-Mart officials.

“I'm disappointed they decided to cave into pressure,'' he said.

Schleppenbach said he opposes Plan B being sold over-the-counter because of its health risks. He said teenagers and other women might not be aware of the risks, such as blood clots and stroke, if they haven't consulted a doctor.

Miller said anti-abortion groups are inaccurate in calling the drug the “abortion pill,'' noting that Plan B won't work if a woman is already pregnant.

“Scientists and medical experts have said its sale over-the-counter is safe,'' Miller said. “Unfortunately, politics and the Bush Administration have blocked it.''