Dispensing Misinformation: Wrong information given about Plan B birth control/emergency contraception

March 21, 2012

By Rodrigo Saavedra, Givona J. Dietz, Jocelyn Santos // Teens in Print Staff Writers
Alicia Perez // Teens in Print Senior Editor
Photo image by AFH

Worried that she might be at risk of being pregnant, a fifteen-year-old Boston Latin Academy student said she called her local Walgreens in Hyde Park and asked how old she had to be to buy the popular morning-after pill known as Plan B. The girl, who did not want to be identified, said a pharmacy employee told her that she had to be 18 or older with a valid ID to purchase Plan B. While she was eventually able to obtain the drug through a friend’s older sister, the girl said she was later surprised to learn that the minimum age to purchase the Plan B pill is actually 17 years old.

The girl shouldn’t have been taken aback. Because more than 24 months later, that Hyde Park Walgreens on Truman Highway was still dispensing misinformation. And a joint investigation by Teens in Print and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University has found that this is not an isolated case. Teen reporters presenting themselves as consumers visited or called 24 pharmacies across the city, including that Walgreens, and discovered that personnel at 71 percent of them did not respond with the correct age or ID requirements needed to buy the emergency contraceptive pill.

“This is very serious stuff,” said Enki Gjeci, 18, from BLA. “If you are selling Plan B, you have to know the law.”

Here is the rule, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration: Anyone 17 and older with a valid identification -- including a school ID with a photo -- can purchase the Plan B pill without a prescription. Those younger need a prescription to obtain it. Yet at more than half of the 24 Boston drugstores checked by the TiP/NECIR reporters, pharmacy employees told them you have to be 18 or older to purchase Plan B. In fact, the owner of one family pharmacy even went so far as to claim you have to be 21 to buy the Plan B pill.

“Anytime we hear about situations where people are not being told the facts, that’s definitely concerning,” said Tricia Wajda, Director of Public Affairs for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “If misinformation is being put out, there are dangerous consequences.”

One possible source of the confusion that teen reporters encountered is the fact that the FDA in 2009 lowered the age for over-the-counter access to the emergency contraceptive from 18 to 17. Another potential problem: The law only requires that a pharmacy request an ID when selling Plan B over-the-counter to those 17 and older. The state does not lay down specific training protocols that need to be followed.

“People’s personal choices are compromised [by] employees’ careless
mistakes,” said Lauren Anderson, 16, from Boston Latin School.

During the TiP/NECIR investigation, the drugstore chain with the worst record
was Walgreens. There, 88 percent of the eight stores checked got either the age or ID requirements wrong. The second worst was CVS, which had the age or ID information incorrect in 86 percent of the seven stores checked.

At Rite Aid, 60 percent of the five stores checked got the age or ID information
wrong.

Only one chain managed to hand out the right information to teen reporters every time: Osco Pharmacy.

“Every single pharmacist and technician goes through rigorous training once a year,” said Steve Sylven, a spokesman for Osco’s parent company, Supervalu.

Company representatives for CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid all said that they were concerned with the investigation’s findings and would follow up with each of the pharmacies cited.

At Walgreens, spokeswoman Tiffani Washington said that the company is intent on ensuring that its pharmacies are aware of the current policies.

“We do our very best to make sure our staff have appropriate training,” said Washington, who recently left the company.

A CVS spokesman said the pharmacy chain does not take its responsibilities lightly.

“CVS pharmacy’s policy is to comply with all laws and regulations relating to the dispensing of medications, including emergency contraception,” said Michael DeAngelis, Director of Public Relations for CVS, in an email response. “We apologize that a few of our pharmacies inadvertently provided the incorrect minimum age to purchase the morning after pill without a prescription.”

Rite Aid spokeswoman Ashley Flower said that the company’s pharmacy associates are trained when hired, adding that Rite Aid is not aware of any complaints from consumers.

“We take very seriously the sale of emergency contraception,” said Flower.

In response to the findings of the TiP/NECIR investigation,the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Pharmacy sent out an email advisory in December to drugstores, professional associations, and pharmacy schools that reiterated the rules for distributing emergency contraception.

After the advisory was circulated, TiP/NECIR reporters rechecked seven of the pharmacies that had originally given them wrong information about Plan B. On the follow-ups, six of them still got the requirements incorrect.

“Disseminating [the advisory] cannot erase all the misinformation,” said Dr. Tracey Wilkinson, of Boston Medical Center, who helped conduct a national survey about the distribution of emergency contraception. “It’s a pretty universal problem.”

Wilkinson’s study, which appeared in a December issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association that was published well after the TiP/NECIR investigation was launched, found that 19% of the pharmacies called were doling out bad information.

Locally, one of the pharmacies that the TiP/NECIR reporters reasked regarding Plan B was the Hyde Park Walgreens on Truman Highway. For at least the third time, the drugstore got the facts wrong.

“I think that these pharmacies need to have some sort of training,” said the Plan B-seeking BLA student, now 17, “because if sending out the advisory wasn’t effective, then they need a more direct approach.”

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (necir.org) is a nonprofit newsroom, specializing in investigative journalism, that is based at Boston University. NECIR’s collaboration with Teens in Print is funded by a grant from The Hearst Foundations, and is intended to teach Boston public high school students investigative reporting skills.

NECIR intern Sarah Kuranda contributed to this report.

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