Confusion about the law is one of the biggest problems when it comes to access for the emergency contraception Plan B. So let’s clear that up first: At the beginning of August 2013, Plan B One-Step became available over-the-counter. Under the new law, it can be purchased by anyone of any age, male or female. Plan B One-Step does not require a prescription and customers do not need to show I.D.
That’s supposed to mean that you can find Plan B One-Step displayed on store or pharmacy shelves – on the family planning aisle, right next to the condoms and other forms of non-prescription birth control.
Simple … right? We decided to find out.
Interns, staff, and volunteers from Ms. visited pharmacies in the Greater Los Angeles Area to determine the difficulty in finding and purchasing Plan B One-Step.
What we found was, well, some lingering roadblocks hindering access to Plan B One-Step:
While Plan B One-Step does not require a prescription, other forms of emergency contraception do if you’re under 17 years of age. The different rules cause confusion among store employees and pharmacists. Consequently, poorly informed employees may ask for an I.D. or a doctor’s prescription for Plan B One-Step when neither is required. According to a recent study in Pediatrics, one in five pharmacies give teen customers wrong information about emergency contraceptives.
2. The Embarrassment
Rarely was Plan B One-Step available right on the shelf, as it should be. The pill is often kept behind the check-out counter, behind the pharmacy counter, or in a locked glass case with a “PUSH for Assistance” button next to it. In some cases, when the button is pushed, the intercom announces “Customer assistance on the family planning aisle!” So, purchasing Plan B One-Step often puts the customer in the spotlight. Embarrassing? The store clerk now knows you are sexually active and have had unprotected sex. What if you live in a small town – and you know the store clerk?
3. It’s “Out of Stock”
Some stores had simply run out of Plan B One-Step. One employee said that the pharmacy usually carried the product, but it “disappeared” from the shelves because it was either purchased frequently or stolen. Ms. also found that sometimes the employees who said the store was “out of stock” were wrong. An employee from the stockroom happened to be passing by and overheard one of our conversations with another store employee who had just said the store was out of Plan B One-Step. “Oh you need Plan B?” he asked the interns. “I have four more in the back.”
They got lucky, while many other women might not.
4. Out of Reach After-hours
Stores that keep Plan B One-Step behind the pharmacy counter restrict access to Plan B One-Step to the store’s pharmacy hours, which tend to be shorter than store hours. Considering that emergency contraception is most effective the sooner it is taken, keeping Plan B One-Step behind the pharmacy counter causes unnecessary delays. And yes, again, who wants to talk to the pharmacist about needing Plan B?
5. An Arm and A Leg
At almost $50 a pop, Plan B One-Step is pretty pricey, and generic emergency contraception is not much cheaper. Right now, Plan B One-Step is the only emergency contraception approved for over-the-counter sale; no generic brands are yet available to compete on price. As more over-the-counter versions of emergency contraception become available in the future, women’s health experts hope that competition will drive down costs.
Another silver lining here is that under the rules of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that went into effect last year, health insurance plans must cover FDA approved contraceptives – including emergency contraception – without co-pays or deductibles, with a few exceptions. This includes Plan-B One Step and eventually, other over the counter FDA-approved contraceptives; however, you’ll probably need a prescription to guarantee coverage.
Where is your Plan B? Could you get it if you needed it?
Ms. invites you to become a citizen journalist and help us prompt broader access for Plan B One-Step. To get involved, download the 4-point fact sheet we’ve provided at whereisyourplanb.com and take it with you to your local pharmacy. Check out whether Plan B One-Step can be easily found, and if not, give the 4-point fact sheet to the store manager or the pharmacist, and ask them why they don’t have Plan B on the family planning aisle and readily accessible.
This story is part of the Reproductive Justice Reporting Project, an initiative of the Media Consortium in partnership with the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, made possible with a grant from the Quixote Foundation.
Photos taken by Ms. magazine.