Across the nation, policymakers are beginning to recognize the importance of allowing innovative access to birth control for women. In recent years, 11 states plus the District of Columbia have passed so-called pharmacy-access laws that allow pharmacists to directly prescribe hormonal contraception, which means women do not first have to obtain a prescription through the traditional doctor’s office visit.
While it’s refreshing to see states experiment with policies such as this, the newest proponent of this birth control access model may come as a surprise. The U.S. Air Force is now allowing female service members on Beale Air Force Base in California to obtain birth control directly from pharmacists at the on-base clinic. This is a good policy that more states and lawmakers should consider to help ease the burden of access for women across the country.
Ninety-nine percent of women in the United States have used some form of birth control during their lives, yet access to effective birth control remains a stubborn problem. Getting a prescription for birth control pills usually requires scheduling a doctor’s appointment, traveling to that appointment, and then going to a pharmacy to fill the prescription. When pharmacists have the authority to prescribe contraception directly, women are able to obtain and fill their prescription in one easy trip.
As noted, service members at Beale AFB can now take advantage of this direct-from-pharmacist process at the base’s walk-in birth control clinic thanks to California’s pharmacy-access legislation enacted in 2016. Championed by senior female military officers at Beale AFB who recognized that access was difficult, the clinic allows patients to discuss their birth control needs with a pharmacist and get their prescription — all in about 10 minutes and without leaving the base.
This model is increasingly recognized as a good idea. Pharmacists are medication experts and can help patients identify any contra-indications that would make a birth control prescription unsafe. In a routine visit for a birth control prescription, a patient reports her medical history and takes a blood pressure test to determine if she is at risk for high blood pressure — tasks that pharmacists are well-qualified to oversee.
Birth control pills are also extremely safe — and effective — for the vast majority of women seeking a prescription. In fact, requiring a doctor’s visit just for a birth control prescription is considered medically unnecessary. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists endorses pharmacy-access, and even recommends complete over-the-counter access. The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians also recommend removing the doctor’s prescription requirement that the majority of states still uphold.
Additionally, permitting women to obtain birth control through pharmacists helps ease the current health care supply constraints that our nation faces. Millions of Americans live in health care shortage areas, where there are not enough medical professionals to supply the health services needed by patients. By moving more birth control prescription needs to pharmacists, doctors and nurses have more time in their schedules to concentrate on other pressing medical issues. In fact, freeing up limited medical resources was one of the key factors the Air Force pointed to in implementing its walk-in birth control process at Beale AFB.
Finally, it’s worth noting that increasing birth control access has become a thoroughly bipartisan pursuit. Political opposites Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, have both said that birth control should be deregulated, while at the state level, places as ideologically divergent as California and West Virginia have passed pharmacy-access legislation.
The push for better birth control access has created unlikely bedfellows and allies so far and therefore should appeal to Americans of all ideological stripes. But if you’re reluctant to listen to either of the current major parties in today’s politically tumultuous times, then at least take it from our military: It’s time to expand birth control access.