Teens Still Need a Prescription for Plan B

You may have heard by now that yesterday afternoon U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebilius overrode the recommendation of the Food and Drug Administration to make Plan B One Step emergency contraceptive available over the counter without prescription to all women. Per Sebilius’ decision, those under the age of 17 will continue to need a prescription to obtain emergency contraception. According to reports, this is the first time on record that a HHS Secretary has utilized her authority to veto a recommendation made by the FDA.

photo of kathleen sebilius - an older white woman with short white and grey hair wearing a green suit jacket. she is holding a pen in her right hand. you can see the back of a man's head in the foreground. Photo taken 4-28-09 by Pete Souza.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebilius

The first question you might have is how did this happen, and why does Sebilius get to decide against the scientifically-based recommendations of the FDA scientists? To understand that, you need to understand how the U.S. bureaucracy works. The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is a member of the President’s Cabinet. There are fifteen Cabinet portfolios, each headed by a Secretary, and about a half dozen or so other Cabinet-level offices. These people report directly to the President. All of the other federal agencies and administrative offices fall underneath one of the Cabinet portfolio areas. So even though the FDA is a pretty important office that plays a critical role in the health and well-being of the American public, it’s a sub-department within the organizational structure of the Department of Health and Human Services. Although Commissioner Margaret Hamburg is at the top of the FDA food chain and gets to make the final recommendation, ultimately the buck stops with Sebilius, who makes decisions for all of those agencies on the organizational chart at the link.

With that out of the way, what happened? Despite some well-researched reports provided to the FDA, Sebilius was concerned that very young women wouldn’t be able to figure out how to use Plan B correctly. According to a study that a couple of articles have cited but still hasn’t been made available to the public, 90% of young women between the ages of 11 and 17 were able to use emergency contraceptive correctly under simulated real-world conditions. With One Step in particular, that’s not surprising! You… take the pill. And brace yourself if you’re susceptible to cramps or headaches as side effects from hormonal birth control. That’s about it. Further, as some have noted, plenty of other drugs have not had their over-the-counter approval predicated on common correct usage. (Which is certainly true if my over-dosage of ibuprofen is any indication, but that’s probably a story for another day.)

The New York Times interviewed Assistant Dean Kathleen Hill-Besinque of the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy on the topic. She commented:

Very few medications are this simple, convenient and safe.

Most scientific researchers interviewed in the various media outlets I’ve been scouring since the news broke have come to the same conclusion. And the drug has already been available over the counter to women 17 and older for some time. It’s the religious community organizations praising Sebilius for protecting young women, citing social and family reasons. Most people across the political spectrum seemed shocked by Sebilius’ decision.

The fact is, while emergency contraceptive works for up to 72 hours, the sooner women take it, the more effective it is. By forcing young women – who already face barriers of access to contraceptive and reproductive care – to get a prescription, the government is taking Plan B off the table for a lot of people.

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Note: You can download a coupon for $5 off Plan B here. (Teva Women’s Health did not provide me any compensation for passing that link along.)

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BaseballChica03

Political hack. Word nerd. Stays crispy in milk. Oxford Comma user. Blogger since 2001.

8 thoughts on “Teens Still Need a Prescription for Plan B”

  1. I think Katha Pollit said it best for me:

    Apparently, it’s okay with you if Michelle is treated like a sixth-grader. I’m trying to think if there are any laws or regulations affecting only men in which unfounded fears about middle-school boys deny all men normal adult privileges. Needless to say, no one suggests that underage boys get a prescription if they want to use condoms, or that grown men have to ask the pharmacist for them and maybe get a lecture about the evils of birth control and promiscuity…This is politics. Pure politics. The Obama administration values the Catholic bishops, the Family Research Council, Rush Limbaugh and the swing voters of Ohio more than the pro-choice Democratic women who make up way more than their share of his base—women who campaigned for him, donated to him, knocked on doors for him, left Hillary Clinton for him. He must be assuming that we are captive voters—we have no place to go. That may be true, but there’s trudging to the polls and there’s passion. Obama is never going to get passion from anti-choicers and swing voters. And it looks increasingly likely that he won’t get it from pro-choice women either.

    And thats the thing that made me so mad. Obama pulled the dad card, which is, sticking your head in the sand and going lalalaala. Thats great that you assume your daughters will not deal with it. They might not. But its their decision (I cant imagine dealing with those decisions as woc in america in the spotlight, with conservative news outlets waiting to use their choices against them for some bs stereotype) and if we cant get proper sex ed and we keep limiting options for reproductive care, then we cant be all confused by teenage pregnancy in the states ( which is another wickedly unsupported thing).

    But it still comes down to politics. He made a very calculated decision to support the FDA and deny teens access to something that would help them IF they decide to have sex and IF something goes wrong.

    I hate election years.

  2. Sometimes we say, “We need better sex education!  Kids don’t know enough about sex and safety!  I mean, a lot of them still think that Plan B is the abortion pill!”  Then we turn around and say, “Why do politicians think that teenage girls aren’t informed enough to make their own decisions about sex and Plan B?”  I agree that this new Plan B thing is bullshit, but defending the knowledge base of teens might not be the best argument in favor of removing this legislation.

  3. What bullshit!  To quote Dr. Jen Gunter:

    A 14 year old who has a baby can sign consent forms so her baby can have surgery and make decisions what to feed that child, but not purchase Plan B to prevent her next pregnancy? Really!?

    Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and Aspirin are available over-the-counter (OTC) both highly lethal when taken in over dose. One bottle is all it takes. No age limit or mental health screen is required before purchasing either.

    My country only got the morning after pill (we don’t call it Plan B) OTC last year, though – and through a pharmacy’s legal advisers, not because the government were bothered – so I’m not claiming superiority here.

    1. As I was saying over on tumblr, what sucks most about the policy is that this means “over the counter” is still truly over the counter. If women 17 and over don’t need a prescription, you still need to show proof of age, so you still need a pharmacist to dispense it. So you can’t just pick it up at midnight on Friday like you can, say, a bottle of Advil. You need to go during pharmacy hours, you need to hope your pharmacist doesn’t have a “religious objection” to it, you need to interact with yet another person and another layer of bureaucracy just to get a simple pill.

      It’s particularly bad policy for the teens who might be completely unable to get it because of lack of insurance to see a doctor or not wanting to tell their parents or whathaveyou, but it’s bad news for everyone.

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