The Food and Drug Administration’s approval today of the first birth control pill for women to be available without a prescription is being hailed by many as a long-needed development, but there remain questions to be resolved, including how much the drug will cost and how it will be used.
The drug, Opill, is expected to be available early next year, and its maker has yet to reveal a retail price. It is the same birth control pill that has been available by prescription for 50 years. But for the first time, women will be able to buy the contraception at a local pharmacy, other retail locations, or online without having to see a doctor first.
Likely to drive debate
Contraception in the United States is not without controversy. The FDA’s approval spurred reactions both for and against making hormonal birth control for women available without a prescription.
“It’s an exciting time, especially right now when reproductive rights are being curtailed in a lot of states. Giving people an additional option for contraception will change people’s lives,” said Beverly Gray, MD, division director of Women’s Community and Population Health at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
“It’s a huge win for patients who need better access to contraception,” said Dr. Gray, who is also a spokesperson for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Women who want hormonal birth control but live in areas without convenient access to a doctor, women who cannot easily take time off of work to see a doctor and get a prescription filled, and women without insurance are examples of people who will benefit, she said.
The Catholic Medical Association, in contrast, expressed “deep concern and disappointment” after an FDA advisory committee’s unanimous vote on May 11 recommending the drug be available over the counter. In a statement after the vote, the group cited “extensive medical studies demonstrating the risks and adverse effects of hormonal contraceptives,” adding that “the social impact of [full approval] would be dramatic.”
But doctors largely disagreed.
“It is definitely a huge win for reproductive autonomy. I’m glad that the FDA is prioritizing patient safety and well-being over politics,” said Catherine Cansino, MD, MPH, an ob.gyn. and clinical professor in the University of California Davis department of obstetrics and gynecology. She said the FDA approved the over-the-counter version because the medication is safe.
While opponents like the Catholic Medical Association cite safety concerns and believe doctors should screen all women before prescribing hormonal contraception, Dr. Gray disagreed. “There’s a lot of evidence that patients can figure out if a progestin-only pill is right for them and safe for them. Medical professionals don’t have to be the gatekeepers for contraception,” she said.
Whether insurance companies will pay for Opill now that it will be available without a prescription remains unknown. For some medications, paying a copay through insurance can be less expensive than buying at a retail price.