Contraceptive pill available OTC for VIC women under Coalition plan
Doctors are warning a Victorian election promise to allow women to buy the contraceptive pill over the counter undermines holistic health care and could result in an increase to the medication’s cost over the long term.
Under the Coalition’s election pledge, women would still need to visit a doctor in order to obtain their first prescription for the oral contraceptive pill, but would be able to get repeat scripts of the drug over the counter from pharmacists.
Currently, women need to visit their GP for a consultation each time a new script for the medication is needed.
Shadow Health Minister Mary Wooldridge said the changes would put Victoria ahead of the rest of the nation when it comes to women being able to control their access to the pill.
“This will improve access, make sure women have a lot more choice in relation to their contraception and also ease cost of living pressures,” Ms Wooldridge said.
“Sometimes women delay seeing a GP because of the cost, and a number of women — up to 20 per cent — wait longer to see a GP than they believe is acceptable.
“So we want to make sure that women have that ease of access to contraception.”
Under the proposal, women would not be able to claim the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) subsidy for the pill if it is bought over the counter and not via a script from their GP.
Policy undermines ‘holistic care’, argue doctors
Australian Medical Association Victorian branch president Julian Rait said there were several good reasons for women to continue consultations with their doctor while they are on the pill.
“Usually, when young people are attending their GP to get a repeat prescription, it’s an opportunity to explore other issues such as sexually transmitted infections, or mental health issues, or even cervical screening, and these things are all part of the holistic care that general practitioners provide,” Associate Professor Rait said.
“And anything that undermines that — in particular making repeat prescriptions accessible via pharmacy — could actually undermine holistic care and make it more fragmented.
He also said regular doctor check-ups were important in managing the potential side effects of the contraceptive pill, such as blood clots and depression.
“I think that it’s important that someone maintains contact with their general practitioner so that those risks are effectively managed.”
Ms Wooldridge said pharmacy access to the contraceptive pill was already working effectively in other countries such as America and New Zealand.
Cost of non-subsidised pill could rise
Associate Professor Rait said the policy appeared to be designed to save the Federal Government money in bulk-billing and subsidies.
“The reality is that 80 per cent of all general practice consultations are bulk-billed,” he said.
“What this is really about is about saving the government money, it’s really about trying to reduce the rebates that are paid for GPs and also reduced subsidies for PBS medicines.
“Because oral contraceptives obtained this way wouldn’t be subject to a PBS subsidy and obviously would cost [the woman] more, so obviously on the one hand they’re trying to suggest that this is a saving for women, but we think actually the contrary might happen.
“It’s quite likely that over time if the PBS is not applicable to contraceptive medications that they may well become more expensive over the counter.”
Ms Wooldridge said some women already accessed versions of the pill which are not subsidised by the PBS.
“One very popular brand of the pill is currently not PBS-subsidised at all, so there’ll be no change in price … if women are concerned about the cost they can certainly go back to the doctor and get a script, and get a PBS subsidy,” she said.
“Or they may choose the convenience of paying the same price or a few dollars more to save the cost of having to pay for a GP visit, and also the time it takes out of their day, to have to make that appointment and take those hours off work to see the GP.
“This policy is all about access to contraception for women … it’s laughable to think that there’s any motivation about federal cost saving.”
Women’s health advocates welcome move
CEO of Women’s Health Victoria, Rita Butera, welcomed the policy, which she said would empower more women to exercise their reproductive rights.
“Anything that we can do in our health service system to support women making decisions and getting access to what they need [more easily] … is a good thing,” she said.
“Women’s reproductive health is a part of who they are, so to be able to manage that and be empowered to make those decisions and access the contraceptive pill over the counter I think is great.
“I think it is important that the doctors are involved at some point in this, especially with the first prescription. But after that if women know that it’s working for them and they need it then why not be able to access it over the counter?”
A spokesperson for the Victorian Government said Labor believed “all women should be able to access convenient and affordable contraception”.
“We’re always open to new ideas to make that easier so we’re happy to have a look at this.”