Catania bill seeks to provide birth-control pills over the-counter

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 10:42 PM

A D.C. Council member introduced a bill Tuesday aimed at allowing women to bypass the doctor's office and get birth-control pills directly from a pharmacist.

If passed by the council and approved by regulators, the proposal could upend a long-established medical practice of dispensing the pills only with a prescription.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who introduced the bill, said the District and states need to make more preventive medicine available without requiring costly visits to a doctor.

"At this point, in this city, it's already a challenge for many women in underserved communities to get the appointments and then find a pharmacy," he said. "I think it's a way to expand access to contraception and to conserve valuable resources."

Catania has the support of Planned Parenthood, which long has argued that birth control should be more readily available to women. The bill is viewed skeptically by doctors and could push the city into conflicts with antiabortion groups and Food and Drug Administration regulations.

"It raises more questions than can possibly be answered at this point," said K. Edward Shanbacker, executive vice president of the _blankMedical Society of the District of Columbia. "It has certainly caught our attention, and the first question we will ask is, 'Is it good medicine?' "

If the legislation is approved by the council, the city would authorize its _blankBoard of Pharmacy and _blankBoard of Medicine to work together to "develop and promulgate" regulations that would allow a pharmacist to furnish hormonal birth control - primarily birth-control pills - without a prescription.

Catania's legislation does not set age restrictions on who would be able to obtain birth control from a pharmacist, saying that such decisions should be left up to the boards as part of the rulemaking process.

How far the District - which long has had a liberal reputation for promoting condoms and other forms of contraception - can go in allowing pharmacists to dispense birth-control pills is unclear.

Possible clash with FDA

In 2006, the FDA approved the sale of Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill, over the counter to women who are age 18 or older.

But the FDA long has maintained that daily usage of birth-control pills should be monitored and prescribed by a physician, largely to limit side effects or possible interactions with other medicines.

Shelly Burgess, an FDA spokeswoman, said Catania's proposal could fall within a "gray area" if the city's Pharmacy Board signs off on it.

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