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Many pharmacists give U.S. teens misleading information about the policies surrounding emergency contraception, and sometimes prevent them from buying it, according to a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The lead study author, Dr. Tracy Wilkinson, works as a pediatrician in Los Angeles. After having several conversation with her teenage patients who told her “weird things about emergency contraception prescriptions,” she decided to look into it further. She worked with female researchers to call over 940 pharmacies in five major cities — Nashville, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Austin, and Portland, OR — posing as 17-year-old girls who wanted information about the morning after pill.
At the time that Wilkenson conducted this research, the age restrictions on Plan B hadn’t yet been changed. Emergency contraception was kept behind the pharmacy counter, and was available without a prescription to all individuals 17 and older. Younger women were required to get a prescription for it — but all of the researchers posing as 17-year-olds should have been able to purchase it on their own. Nonetheless, many of them ran into roadblocks.
“About 20 percent of the pharmacy staff said that, because the callers identified themselves as teens, the callers couldn’t get it at all. That’s completely incorrect,” Wilkinson explained to Health Behavior News Service. “Of the remaining 80 percent of respondents, about half of them got the exact age requirement correct and half of them did not.”
Some pharmacists incorrectly told teens that they needed to be accompanied by a parent or guardian if they wanted to buy Plan B. Some said that they didn’t stock the contraceptive at all for moral or ethical reasons. But mostly, there was a lot of confusion over the regulations surrounding the morning after pill — the researchers were told that they needed to be 18 years old, or they needed to be female, or they needed a prescription.
The study authors point out that a web of complication regulations surrounding this type of contraception has created a climate of confusion around Plan B. And since their research was conducted, it’s gotten even more confusing. This year, the Obama administration lowered the age restriction for over-the-counter Plan B purchases to 15, then removed it altogether. But the administration’s new policy only applies for one brand of the morning after pill, Teva’s Plan B One-Step. No prescription or photo ID is necessary to buy One-Step, but other brands still require a prescription for teens younger than 17, and one brand requires a prescription for people of all ages. Many people have reported having trouble buying emergency contraception, even though it’s now supposed to be available on pharmacy shelves.
This issue can be particularly problematic for younger women. Earlier studies have also found that some pharmacists deny Plan B to eligible teens, and teens who live in low-income areas disproportionately struggle to access emergency contraception.
Pediatricians have repeatedly called for expanding teens’ access to emergency contraception as an effective way to reduce unintended pregnancies — a commonly held position among most doctors’ groups. Medical professionals point out that it might be smart to stock up on Plan B ahead of time and make it available in teens’ homes, since it’s a time-sensitive contraceptive.