The Biden administration issued guidance on Wednesday to remind the nation's 60,000 retail pharmacies of their obligation under federal law to supply prescribed medications, including drugs that may cause an abortion.
The Department of Health and Human Services listed several conditions that are commonly treated with drugs that can induce abortion, warning that withholding the pills could violate civil rights laws and could be considered discrimination based on sex or disability.
"We are committed to ensuring that everyone can access health care, free of discrimination," Xavier Becerra, the U.S. health and human services secretary, said in a statement.
"This includes access to prescription medications for reproductive health and other types of care," he said.
Earlier this week, Becerra issued other guidance to remind hospitals that federal law requires doctors to provide stabilizing treatment for patients with emergency medical conditions, which could include an abortion for those who arrive at emergency departments with a life-threatening issue.
Both actions by the Biden administration assert that federal laws override state laws that have banned or restricted abortion access since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, according to The New York Times.
The guidance issued Wednesday focuses on Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act and related federal regulations, which state that recipients of federal financial assistance — including pharmacies that get Medicare and Medicaid payments — can't discriminate based on race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability. The guidance highlights that pregnancy discrimination includes discrimination based on current pregnancy, past pregnancy, potential or intended pregnancy, and medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth.
Three drugs in particular — mifepristone, misoprostol, and methotrexate — are often prescribed for other medical conditions but can also induce abortions in certain cases. Methotrexate, for example, is used for cancer and autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Mifepristone is often used for patients with a hormonal disorder called Cushing's syndrome, while misoprostol is often prescribed for ulcers. When used in combination, the two drugs are authorized by the FDA to terminate a pregnancy during the first 10 weeks and after a miscarriage.
Since Roe was overturned, women have posted on social media that they were denied the drugs for their medical conditions due to being of "childbearing age."
"These are very legitimate issues in terms of people being concerned about having access to the basic medications that they have been receiving for years, just because those medications have the capacity to end a pregnancy," Alina Salganicoff, PhD, the director of women's health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the Times.
"It doesn't sound like [pharmacies] are blocking this for men," she said.
The Biden administration's guidance will likely be challenged in court, the newspaper reported. The update is cautiously written and doesn't directly say that pharmacies must provide the drugs for the purpose of medication abortion.
In the meantime, pharmacists could feel stuck in the middle. Pharmacists who "believe they are acting in good faith in accordance with their state's laws on abortion shouldn't be left without a clear pathway forward," the National Community Pharmacists Association said in a statement on Wednesday.
The association, which represents about 19,400 independent pharmacies across the U.S., said pharmacies are regulated by states, and most states haven't advised pharmacists on how to dispense the drugs in question.
"States have provided very little clarity on how pharmacists should proceed in light of conflicting state and federal laws and regulations," B. Douglas Hoey, the association's CEO, said in the statement.
"It is highly unfair for state and federal governments to threaten aggressive action against pharmacists who are just trying to serve their patients within new legal boundaries that are still taking shape," he said.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Guidance to Nation's Retail Pharmacies: Obligations under Federal Civil Rights Laws to Ensure Access to Comprehensive Reproductive Health Care Services," "HHS Issues Guidance to the Nation's Retail Pharmacies Clarifying Their Obligations to Ensure Access to Comprehensive Reproductive Health Care Services," "Reinforcement of EMTALA Obligations specific to Patients who are Pregnant or are Experiencing Pregnancy Loss."
The New York Times: "U.S. Tells Pharmacists Not to Withhold Pills That Can Cause Abortion."
National Community Pharmacists Association: "Feds Putting Pharmacists in Crossfire, Says National Community Pharmacists Association."
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Cite this: Feds Warn Pharmacists: Don't Refuse to Provide Abortion Pills - Medscape - Jul 14, 2022.