Pharmacists are used to the barriers imposed by insurers on quantities we can dispense. But that does little to ease the frustrations of patients who have to come in every 4 weeks to obtain more birth control or are forced into a mail order pharmacy. Beyond frustrations, frequent trips lead to worse outcomes in this case.
Let’s start with the good that happens when the need to obtain refills goes away.
More supplies leads to fewer unintended pregnancies and abortions. One study evaluated oral contraceptive supplies and pregnancy events among Medicaid users in California. Patients who were dispensed a one-year supply of oral contraceptives experienced a 30% reduction in the odds of an unintended pregnancy compared to those patients who received supplies for one or three months. The one-year supply was also associated with a 46% reduction in the odds of an abortion.
Unintended pregnancy is a costly outcome that can be mitigated in part by providing patients with a one-year supply of contraception. Contraception is generally cost effective and it would behoove health insurers and other payers to increase dispensing limits to allow for one-year supplies.
Six states have passed legislation requiring health plans to cover a 12-month supply of hormonal contraceptives. This applies to self-administered hormonal contraceptives including pills, patches, and rings. Patients may request these larger quantities to be dispensed from their pharmacy. Similar legislation has been introduced in 17 other states.
California’s legislation was passed in September 2016 and became effective January 2017, however it does not require health plans to adhere to the law until the plan renews. For many plans, the annual renewal period is in the fall or winter.
This has implications for pharmacies. Besides being aware of this law and honoring our patient requests for larger supplies, we also need to consider inventory adjustments to accommodate these requests. Keeping substantially larger quantities of birth control products will be challenging for many pharmacies as these come in bulky packaging and shelf space is limited. If this is a significant limitation for your pharmacy, consider dispensing an initial supply of about 3 months, ordering the remaining quantity, and mailing those supplies directly to the patient’s home when it arrives or whatever method the patient prefers.
All birth control methods dispensed at the pharmacy are stored at room temperature except for the vaginal ring (NuvaRing). Since the ring can only be stored at room temperature for up to 4 months, we will need to dispense appropriate quantities to ensure the medication remains effective. While patients may want to store their rings in their refrigerator at home, the temperature cannot be controlled and monitored as it is in the pharmacy. For this reason, it would be prudent to dispense up to four vaginal rings if the patient plans on inserting the first the same day or up to three vaginal rings in the patient plans on inserting the first within the next month. For patients to be satisfied with this plan, it will be critical to explain the storage requirements and concern for effectiveness with the patient.
This evidence-based change is good for patients. While it’s a change for pharmacies initially, hopefully they will benefit from improved patient satisfaction and outcomes.
- Foster DG, Hulett D, Bradsbetty M, Darney P, Policar M. Number of oral contraceptive pill packages dispensed and subsequent unintended pregnancies. Obstet Gyencol. 2011;117:566-72.
- Steenland MW Rodriguez M, Marchbanks PA, Curtis KM. How does the number of oral contraceptive pill packs dispensed or prescribed affect continuation and other measures of consistent and correct use? A systematic review. Contraception. 2013;605-10.
- McMenamin SB, Charles SA, Tabatabaeepour N, Shigekawa E, Corbett G. Implications of dispensing self-administered hormonal contraceptives in a 1-year supply: a California case study. Contraception. 2017;449-51.
Sally Rafie, PharmD
Sally Rafie, PharmD, BCPS, APh, NCMP is a pharmacist specialist at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Health and an assistant clinical professor at the UCSD Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. She started the Birth Control Pharmacist project (www.birthcontrolpharmacist.com) to help educate pharmacists and other health care professionals about family planning topics such as hormonal contraception, emergency contraception, and youth-friendly pharmacy services. Her advocacy efforts support widespread access to reproductive health services and products, particularly in pharmacies.