By Tara Bannow

The Bulletin

As of last week, just over 200 pharmacists in Oregon had completed the training necessary to dispense birth control without doctors’ prescriptions — a small fraction of the state’s roughly 7,000 pharmacists.

A new Oregon law allowed pharmacists to begin dispensing birth control without prescriptions on Jan. 1, but many are still in the process of taking Oregon State University’s five-hour online training and the required exam that certifies them to do so.

Most of the pharmacists who help customers work in chain pharmacies operated by grocery and retail stores as opposed to small, independently owned pharmacies. Grocers Safeway and Albertsons and the warehouse store Costco have been statewide leaders when it comes to getting their pharmacists through the required training in order to dispense the medications.

Safeway and Albertsons, which are owned by the same company, are the largest pharmacy providers in Oregon, said Paige Clark, director of alumni relations and professional development at OSU’s College of Pharmacy, which is providing the training for pharmacists.

“You can probably recognize that there is one (Safeway or Albertsons) in every community, there is one on every corner,” she said. “Their reach is tremendous across the state. They are going to have a very significant impact quickly for almost all communities in the state of Oregon.”

Rite Aid is preparing to offer the service in its stores in the “near future,” said spokeswoman Kristin Kellum. Walgreens has announced plans to purchase Rite Aid, and Walgreens spokesman James Cohn said the company is still evaluating whether it will participate.

CVS acquired Target’s pharmacies in mid-December and will begin converting them this spring. Until that happens, birth control will not be available without doctors’ prescriptions in those pharmacies, said spokeswoman Amy Lanctot.

Some pharmacists are holding off on obtaining certification. Insurance coverage has been the biggest holdup. While the medical professionals routinely bill insurers for prescription drugs, billing for a service like this where they’re acting as a medical provider is new.

The state requires patients fill out a health questionnaire and talk to the pharmacist about previous medical issues before receiving birth control. While that process is being figured out, some pharmacists are charging customers a fee to perform the consultation required before they can dispense the birth control. At Safeway, for example, it’s $45.

So far, about 10 percent of customers requesting birth control from pharmacists are being directed to physicians because of health conditions — such as high blood pressure or migraines with auras — that put them at higher risk of side effects, which is along the lines of what was anticipated, Clark said.

Amy Tice is the sole pharmacist at Westside Pharmacy, one of only a handful of independently owned pharmacies in Bend. She recently completed OSU’s training and says she’ll be ready to dispense birth control without prescriptions on Feb. 1. Since there is no way to bill insurance for consultations yet, she plans to charge $45.

Tice said she’s worried that talking to patients about birth control could cause longer waits for her customers.

“That’s definitely part of the concern is how to work it into the normal workflow, especially at our pharmacy, where there is one pharmacist,” she said.

At Safeway pharmacies, the consultations have taken an average of 30 minutes, said spokeswoman Jill McGinnis.

The Oregon Health Authority is reimbursing pharmacists about $33 for dispensing birth control without prescriptions for people who rely on the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid, Clark said.

Pharmacists have over the years been increasingly acting as medical providers when it comes to services such as diabetes management, Clark said. This is just one more step in that direction.

“Honestly, the secret to keeping our population healthy is ensuring that they take these medications correctly,” she said. “To put it the other way, that they don’t take them incorrectly. That’s just as bad.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0304,

tbannow@bendbulletin.com

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