Washington lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday making it illegal for pharmacies to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control. The move adds to a growing controversy over the right of pharmacists to withhold oral contraceptives from patients with valid doctor's orders.
Under the bill, pharmacists who refuse to fill any prescription because of "personal beliefs" must ensure that another pharmacist dispenses the drugs. Pharmacies that do not stock a drug must order it immediately at the patient's request, it states.
The bill says pharmacies can be fined up to $5,000 a day or $500,000 in total for delays in providing drugs.
While the bill applies to all prescriptions and does not specifically mention birth control, supporters made it clear that it was intended to head off a growing number of pharmacists who are refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control and emergency contraceptives because of moral objections.
"Nobody has the right to come between a person and their doctor," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the bill's chief senate sponsor. "We just want to have a bill that will say, 'pharmacists, do your job, period.'"
The bill comes a day after two Illinois pharmacists sued Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich over a new state rule compelling pharmacies that carry contraceptives to fill prescriptions for birth control.
The rule also forces pharmacies that do not stock the requested pills, including emergency contraception, to order the drugs or refer the patient to a nearby pharmacy. Blagojevich approved the rule April 1 after two Chicago pharmacists refused to fill prescriptions for emergency contraceptives.
Similar refusals have occurred in at least seven states, including Texas, where in 2004 three Eckerd pharmacists in the town of Denton allegedly refused to fill an emergency contraceptive prescription for a rape victim.
"We have to make sure that women do not have to fight through the conscience of their pharmacist in order to get legal prescription drugs," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a House sponsor of the bill.
The bill does not require pharmacies to stock any drug but only compels them to order it for patients with a valid doctor's prescription, aides said.
Conservative Pharmacists Respond
Karen Brauer, RPh, president of Pharmacists for Life International, a conservative pharmacists' group with 1,600 members, says the bill would be unenforceable since some pharmacists refuse to provide birth control pills on medical safety grounds.
"First they'll have to prove that the denial [to fill a prescription] is due to beliefs. I think we could make the government go broke trying to enforce that," she said.
At least four states -- Arkansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Georgia -- have laws or regulations giving pharmacists the right to refuse to fill prescriptions to which they morally object.
Other states are considering legislation requiring pharmacists to fill all valid prescriptions.
Controversy over oral contraceptives also surfaced last week on Capitol Hill. Two Democratic senators blocked the confirmation of President Bush's pick to head the FDA until the agency issues a long-awaited decision on whether to allow an emergency contraceptive called Plan B to be sold over the counter to patients 16 and older.
SOURCES: Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.. Karen Brauer, RPh, president, Pharmacists for Life International.