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Over-counter birth control on its way

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the first non-prescription daily oral contraceptive tablet was a “win” for reproductive health care, according to Dr. Claire Herrick, clinical lead physician at Presbyterian Regional Medical Center.

The tablet, known as Opill, was approved for nonprescription use by the FDA on July 13.

Herrick said decreasing the hurdles of patient access to birth control is a positive step for the public to plan or avoid pregnancy.

“Unintended pregnancy has lots of consequences. For (a woman), her family and her health. And helping women prevent pregnancies that they’re not ready for is a wonderful step in that direction,” Herrick said.

But Micah Lansford, a Clovis pharmacist and owner of Roden-Smith Pharmacy, warns birth control is not one-size-fits-all.

“Birth control has been available for a long time and there are hundreds of different options, and hormonal treatment is complicated, Lansford said. “It’s complicated for women to get on the one that works correctly for their body, and this is true for menopausal or postmenopausal treatment of hormonal imbalances.”

The medication will not be available until early 2024, according to Perrigo’s HRA Pharma, the healthcare company that created the pill.

According to the FDA website, by making oral contraceptives more accessible to individuals who are at the reproductive age, the FDA seeks to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancies across the nation. Almost half of the 6.1 million pregnancies in the U.S. each year are unintended, according to the FDA.

Herrick said the reason the number of unintended pregnancies is so high is because there are a number of “barriers” women need to clear to get contraception.

Herrick said that before the FDA’s July 13 decision, women needed to get a prescription from a qualified provider, such as a nurse practitioner, physician or midwife. This would usually require the patient to meet with a provider, so that the patient’s medical history, health risk and vitals could be evaluated. This is not always done within one appointment.

From there, the patient would have to pick up a prescription every four to 12 weeks to get medication at their local pharmacy, depending on the insurance coverage of the prescription, Herrick said.

“Everything other than condoms requires a trip to the doctor’s office, and so we suspect if women have access to birth control without an appointment, that will allow women to be more consistent with their birth control,” Herrick said.

From abiding by the doctor and pharmacy’s schedule, a woman who loses her medication may be subjected to waiting for an entire month or longer before she can receive a refill of her medication, said Herrick. Over-the-counter medication, Herrick said, could give almost immediate medication refills for oral contraception.

Lansford said the issue is not whether birth control should be more accessible, but whether the public is safe and educated about the medication before receiving it.

He said he is concerned that if residents don’t seek advice from a physician or pharmacist, that could lead to people misusing the over-the-counter drug.

“Expanding patient access to healthcare without putting someone between them and that care is generally a good thing. But we see, as pharmacists, misuse of drugs over the counter all the time. Especially brand-named marketed products you see on TV,” Lansford said.

Lansford encourages patients to always ask their local pharmacist about prescription and over-the-counter drugs to learn what may be best suited for their medical needs.

Like most prescribed oral contraceptives, Opill is 93% effective in preventing pregnancy, according to the FDA.

According to the New Mexico Department of Health website, individuals who are at the reproductive age, including teens, can receive family planning clinical services without parental permission. The pill will have no age restriction and will not require parental approval, according to the FDA.

The tablet will ultimately be accessible at convenience stores, drug stores, grocery stores and even online, the FDA stated.