OLYMPIA, Wash. - Washington's Board of Pharmacy voted Thursday to not move forward with changing a rule that prohibits pharmacies from refusing to dispense all legal drugs, including the morning-after contraceptive "Plan B."
On a 5-1 vote at a meeting in Renton, the board stopped the rulemaking process it had started in August that could have led to allowing pharmacists to refer patients to another pharmacy for "time-sensitive" medication, including Plan B and hundreds of other drugs.
"They looked at the rule and said, 'We think it's worked fine,"' said Tim Church, a spokesman for the state Department of Health.
Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a statement Thursday night calling it a "good decision."
"I could not support a ruling that would limit a patient's access to medication," she said. "The board understood that changing the current rule could force patients, especially those living in rural areas, to suffer lengthy delays to receive their medication and cause others to go without entirely."
Plan B is a contraceptive that can greatly reduce the chances of pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
Some pharmacists and drugstore owners, however, say they can't sell the pills in good conscience because they consider Plan B's effect on potential pregnancies too similar to abortion.
Plan B is not the abortion pill RU-486. It contains a high dose of a drug found in many regular birth-control pills, and prevents ovulation or fertilization of an egg.
Plan B is available without prescription to anyone 17 and older. Purchasers must ask for Plan B at the pharmacy counter and show identification with their date of birth, and anyone too young to qualify for over-the-counter sales needs a prescription.
In 2007, regulators on the state Pharmacy Board ruled that pharmacies could not refuse to sell a lawful product, like Plan B, because of moral or religious beliefs.
A compromise rule was adopted that allowed individual pharmacists who had moral objections to pass the sale to another employee in the same store, provided the patient's order was filled without delay. But that left few options for a lone pharmacist, or for a pharmacy owner who has moral objections to a particular drug.
Two pharmacists and an Olympia pharmacy owner sued the state shortly before the new rules took effect, arguing their constitutional rights were being violated. A legal fight over the issue has been going on for years. In October 2007, a federal judge in Tacoma blocked the rule for Plan B, but in July 2009, the 9th Circuit Court of appeals lifted that injunction, saying the judge had overreached. The case headed back to district court and a trial was set to start at the end of July, but the judge postponed it while the new rulemaking process started.
Sara Ainsworth, an attorney with Legal Voice, a women's rights organization based in Seattle, lauded the decision to stop the rulemaking process.
"We're very happy the pharmacy board has seen fit to maintain the existing rule which we believe protects patients, and puts patients first, while at the same time accommodating the individual beliefs of a pharmacist," she said.
Kevin Stormans, co-owner of Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia, who is part of the lawsuit, said he would discuss with his lawyers what the next step in the case would be.
Stormans said that because he believes that the medication has the potential to cause termination of a pregnancy, "that is something we cannot participate in."
"All we wanted to do is create a facilitated referral process," he said.