SALT LAKE CITY — Pharmacists in Utah may now legally dispense birth control to women who have not seen a doctor.

The state's newest standing order, authorized by lawmakers in 2018, aims to cut down some of the barriers that lead to unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. The order is effective immediately.

"About half of pregnancies are unplanned and one in five are really unwanted pregnancies and a lot of it might have to do with poor availability of contraceptives," said Dr. Joseph Miner, a physician and executive director at the Utah Department of Health. He said the standing order will help people who either don't have the time or money to regularly see a doctor for birth control.

Pharmacists and health department medical directors who want to dispense birth control prescriptions must complete a five-hour training with the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing to show they are competent to counsel and dispense what is called "self-administered contraceptives," including hormonal birth control pills, patches and the vaginal ring.

They must also register with the Utah Department of Health and submit annual reports on their dispensing activity.

Women seeking a prescription for birth control at a pharmacy will need to answer questions pertaining to their medical and health history, as well as have their blood pressure taken and talk with the pharmacist, prior to approval of a prescription, which can be filled for two years.

The issuing pharmacist must also conduct periodic evaluations at certain points within the two years, but after two years, a woman would need to see a doctor, Miner said.

"We certainly don't want to discourage them from going to their health care providers," he said, adding that after answering the questions, women most likely will know whether it is safe for them to use the contraceptives.

The cost of the available forms of birth control will be the responsibility of the women seeking a standing prescriptions.

The health department will keep a list of qualified pharmacies where the standing prescriptions would be available, though to bring awareness to the program, Miner said women are encouraged to ask pharmacists whether it is an option.

"I'd imagine most pharmacists will want to do this," Miner said. "We encourage them to be qualified to counsel and dispense this drug to women who want it."

The standing order for contraceptives, a result of SB184, is the second to be approved by Utah lawmakers. It joins a standing order issued by the health department in 2016 fornaloxone, a rescue medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Thousands of doses of naloxone have been dispensed throughout Utah since.

"Both are for major health issues," Miner said.

He said other states are also working to offer similar programs to women. A national movement is pushing for contraceptives to be available without a prescription, further reducing the barriers for women.

"Our data shows that for women who become pregnant without planning it, the outcomes can sometimes be less than optimal," said Laurie Baksh, manager at the health department's Maternal and Infant Health Program. She said many women who are not planning to have children aren't taking the vitamins necessary to prevent complications, or might be using tobacco, which can also lead to serious problems.

Unplanned or unwanted pregnancies are also associated with "poor prenatal care utilization and higher pre-term birth rates, and can result in significant state expenditures," the four-page standing order states.

"We tell women considering pregnancy to take the steps they need to to be in the best health possible before they decide to become pregnant," Baksh said.

Having birth control prescriptions available at pharmacies, with approval from local physicians, she said, will help in rural areas of the state where shortages of health care providers exist.

Unplanned pregnancies happen less than the national average in Utah, but Baksh said that from a health department perspective, it would be optimal for more babies to be planned or expected.

"Our concern is that contraceptives are readily available," Miner said, adding that it will help decrease the number of unplanned, but particularly, unwanted pregnancies. "This is critical for the health of families and children."

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