Politics & Government

State lawmakers want to make it easier for women to get birth control

Lawmakers in Washington state say they are trying to make it easier for women to get birth control with a measure that would require insurers to cover a 12-month supply of contraceptives, along with another bill that would allow pharmacists — not just doctors — to prescribe birth control.
Lawmakers in Washington state say they are trying to make it easier for women to get birth control with a measure that would require insurers to cover a 12-month supply of contraceptives, along with another bill that would allow pharmacists — not just doctors — to prescribe birth control. McClatchy

It’s become an annual tradition for Washington’s Republicans and Democrats to spar over matters of reproduction, including a perennial plan to require insurers to cover abortions and another to notify parents when their teens seek to end a pregnancy.

This year, members of both parties are supporting bills in the Legislature that would make it easier for women to access birth control at pharmacies.

One proposal would require insurers to cover 12 months of contraceptives at a time, so women can get a year’s supply of birth control with a single pharmacy visit.

Another measure would allow pharmacists to start prescribing contraceptives themselves, so women no longer would need to see a doctor to get birth control.

Washington would be among the first states to implement either policy, should they become law.

Right now, only Oregon requires insurers to cover 12 months of birth control, instead of the more typical one-month or three-month prescriptions. And only Oregon and California have passed laws allowing women to get birth control directly from pharmacists, without requiring that they consult a physician.

Several members of both parties have signed on to each proposal, indicating the measures have bipartisan support.

“We have to lower the barriers to women having access to reproductive health care,” said state Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, the majority floor leader in the Senate who is a co-sponsor of both bills.

“One of the easiest ways to do that is to take a medicine and a technology that has been around for decades, that has proven to be safe, that is used by millions of women each year, and make it easier for them to access it,” Fain said.

State Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, said many women have difficulty finding the time to go to the pharmacy each month to pick up their birth control prescriptions. She said requiring insurers to cover 12-month supplies of birth control would help women avoid missing pills or having other gaps in their birth control routine.

“All of a sudden you run the risk of missing a few days or a week, and we all know we have to take those things every day or they don’t work correctly,” said Robinson, who is the primary sponsor of House Bill 2465. “We all want to help do what we can to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and this is a way to do that.”

A 2011 study by researchers at the University of California San Francisco found that when women received a one-year supply of oral contraceptives, instead of the standard one-month or three-month supply, their odds of getting pregnant declined by 30 percent. Women receiving a one-year supply of birth control were also 46 percent less likely to have an abortion, the study found.

Robinson’s bill has a public hearing before the House Health Care and Wellness Committee at 8 a.m. Tuesday. An identical bill introduced in the state Senate is sponsored by Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

Hobbs said he thinks the legislation would be especially helpful for women who are going to college, “or maybe the single mom who is struggling to make ends meet, who can’t quite get to the pharmacy in time.”

Hobbs said he is optimistic that the measure can pass the Republican-controlled Senate, unlike a proposal he previously sponsored that would have mandated that insurers cover abortion services.

“Obviously that has been contentious,” Hobbs said, “So let’s score a win here for those women who need better access to birth control.”

The local political arm of Planned Parenthood strongly supports requiring insurers to cover a year of birth control supplies, spokesman Erik Houser said.

“This is a really common-sense, no-brainer issue, and we would hope members of all parties can get behind it,” Houser said.

Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest is still reviewing the other proposal, which would allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control pills and patches to patients, Houser said.

That bill would allow women ages 18 and older to get their birth control medication directly from a pharmacist, as long as the pharmacist has undergone special training and the women complete a self-screening risk assessment. Under the proposal, House Bill 2681, women would also need to see a doctor every three years if they want to continue getting birth control through their pharmacist.

Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, said many women have “a long wait” before they can get into see their doctor and get a prescription for birth control, so it makes sense to give them more options. She said college-age women are among those who would benefit from the proposal.

“When they leave to go to college and they’re on campus, it doesn’t make sense for them to have to go back home to see their primary care physician or have to establish a new relationship with a doctor,” Stambaugh said.

Yet the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently came out against state laws that would allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control, saying that women should be able to get birth control over-the-counter with no prescription at all.

“Requiring a pharmacist to prescribe and dispense oral contraceptives only replaces one barrier — a physician's prescription — with another,” the group said in a statement earlier this month. “This is not going to allow us to reach women who remained underserved by the current prescribing requirements.”

Stambaugh’s bill to allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control has a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday before the House Health Care and Wellness Committee. A similar proposal in the Senate, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center, will have a hearing before the Senate Health Care Committee at 10 a.m. the next day.

Both Rivers and Stambaugh also co-sponsored the legislation that would require insurers to pay for a year’s worth of birth control at a time.

Stambaugh said that while she understands concerns about continuing to require a prescription for birth control, she said she thinks her proposal to allow pharmacists to prescribe contraceptives is “a step in the right direction.”

“I think there is going to be momentum in the future moving toward no prescription,” she said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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