“Morning-after pill” is tougher to buy at Colorado pharmacies than the law allows, study finds

The emergency contraceptive drug that can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex, commonly known as Plan B, has no age restriction and has federal approval for sale on pharmacy shelves.

Yet in Colorado, researchers found the “morning-after pill” isn’t always as accessible as law allows.

Researchers from the University of Colorado medicine and pharmacy schools asked for the emergency contraception at 633 pharmacies across the state — in urban, rural and frontier towns — in 2014 to find out how easily they could buy it.

While 87 percent of pharmacies had the drug in stock, 42 percent of those kept it behind the counter, meaning in order to buy it a person would have to request it from a pharmacy employee, who sometimes had to unlock a locked cabinet.

More than half of the pharmacies that carried the drug — 56 percent — said an ID was required for purchase, despite that there is no such legal requirement. Age restrictions on over-the-counter sales of the drug were lifted in 2013 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

This undated file photo provided by Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc., shows a package of Plan B’ One-Step, an emergency contraceptive. The morning-after pill is finally going over-the-counter. The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday, June 20, 2013, approved unrestricted sales of Plan B One-Step, lifting all age limits on the emergency contraceptive. The move came a week after the Obama administration ended months of back-and-forth legal battles by promising a federal judge it would take that step. (AP Photo/Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc., File)

Chain pharmacies were much more likely to have Plan B in stock, at 90 percent, and every single 24-hour pharmacy in the study had the drug in stock. Only 58 percent of independent stores carried the drug.

The findings are reported in the latest issue of the journal Women’s Health Issues, where it is featured as “editor’s choice.”

Three researchers from CU called pharmacies posing as women seeking the emergency contraception, called levonorgestrel, sold under the brand names Plan B, Take Action and My Way, among others. It costs from $35 to $60. The researchers defined the drug as “completely accessible” if it was available on store shelves that day without presenting an ID or a prescription.

Just 23 percent of pharmacies met that definition.

“Unfortunately, women can get caught in these situations feeling vulnerable, feeling pressured and feeling stigmatized,” said study author Dr. Carol Stamm, associate professor of medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus. “We would encourage women not to give up. If they face hurdles or obstacles, they should consider a different pharmacy.”

To avoid pregnancy, a woman must take the drug within 120 hours of intercourse, though research shows it is most effective within 24 hours.

Study authors suspect many pharmacy employees unnecessarily asked for identification because the age cutoff for the drug changed four times before it was lifted, resulting in confusion. They also noted “delays in updating store policies.” No similar research has been done in Colorado in the past three years, though more recent studies in other states resulted in similar findings, Stamm said.

Pharmacies in Colorado and most states are not required by law to carry the emergency contraception.

Other study authors included CU medical student Van Mimi Chau and CU associate dean and pharmacy professor Laura Borgelt.

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