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The State of New York

When and Where Can New Yorkers Get Birth Control Without an Rx? No One Seems to Know

But I tried to find some answers.

A pack of birth control pills

(Unsplash / Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition)

In May of 2023, Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law a bill that allows New Yorkers to obtain hormonal birth control from a pharmacy, without a prescription. On March 19, New York's health commissioner sat next to Governor Hochul and a stack of contraceptives and signed an order that formally gave pharmacists the green light. "This is a big moment for women of New York," Hochul said. "Starting today, any woman walking into a New York state pharmacy will be able to purchase birth control, the best birth control method that meets her needs."

It is an important step, if not exactly a groundbreaking one. In allowing pharmacists to dispense a variety of hormonal birth control methods without a prescription, New York rather belatedly joins more than two dozen other states that already have similar rules on the books. 

Still, better late than never, right? Getting the pill, or any other type of hormonal birth control, can be a huge pain in the ass, even if you have insurance coverage. (One year, I had to scramble when my primary care physician told me during my annual check-up that she no longer gave out prescriptions for birth control; I ended up paying for an online service that promised fast delivery but took weeks to arrive.) 

Governor Hochul announces New York pharmacists can now provide hormonal contraception without a prescription. (Darren McGee / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

So last Friday, several days after Hochul's announcement, I looked at my dwindling supply of birth control pills and decided to see if I could make use of this exciting new service. 

While news headlines—and Hochul herself—made it seem that pharmacies were already dispensing hormonal birth control without a prescription as of March 19, New York State Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald noted that it might take several weeks for participating pharmacies to get the service up and running. To receive birth control at a pharmacy without a prescription, New Yorkers will need to undergo a thorough screening process, including a blood pressure test.

First, I called up a nearby CVS, not too far from me in Brooklyn, only to find that they were not yet participating. The pharmacist was aware of the new law, she told me, but they were waiting on guidance. "We haven't received any updates as to how we're going to maneuver that," the pharmacist said. 

Then I tried a nearby Walgreens, only for the pharmacist to appear to be unaware of the new law. "There's only one pill that's approved for over-the-counter," that pharmacist said, referring to the Opill, the progestin-only birth control pill that was approved by the FDA in 2023 and has only recently begun being stocked by some pharmacies. (It should be more widely available in April.) She added, "All the other ones are prescription-only." 

Finally, my local mom-and-pop pharmacy was similarly unaware of the new order when I stopped by on Friday and asked if they were offering birth control pills without an Rx. "No, that’s the only one," the pharmacist told me, pointing to a card on the counter about the Opill. As for online delivery services like Capsule, they're not included in the new regulation, because it requires that in-person screening. 

There was one pharmacy that told me they were planning on offering hormonal birth control without a prescription—and that was the College Parkside Pharmacy in Albany, which is operated by the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. (It also is where Governor Hochul and Commissioner McDonald held their press conference last week.)

"I hope to have this service available in the next few weeks," Paul Pagnotta, the pharmacy operations manager, told me. "However, there are two items that need to be addressed before we can service our patients." The first, he noted, is that its pharmacists must first complete training, which he said pharmacists "must pay for." 

The second is around billing, Pagnotta said. "The pharmacies will need guidance on billing this service. NYRx (NY Medicaid) has already provided this information. However, as far as I know, the Big Three [pharmacy benefit managers]—Caremark, Express, and Optum—have not provided information for billing." 

"As part of this process, the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Education has developed a set of competencies required for pharmacists who choose to participate to self-attest," a DOH spokesperson told me. "Pharmacists will need to maintain their own documentation of training and make it available to the state Department of Education upon request." This kind of training typically costs around $150.

In announcing the new order, Commissioner McDonald noted that the DOH estimates that 85 percent of pharmacies will participate, but crucially, there is no legal requirement or deadline for them to do so. 

The DOH did not respond when I asked them where that estimate comes from, but it appears to be based on a 2009 national survey of pharmacists in which 85 percent of respondents, as the Center for American Progress (CAP) put it, "expressed interest in being able to prescribe contraceptives." Actual participation in states that have rolled out similar programs has been much lower. A 2022 study of 175 pharmacies in Hawai'i found that only 31 percent offered birth control without a prescription, and a 2020 survey of Oregon pharmacies, which has, according to CAP, one of the highest participation rates, found that 46 percent of pharmacies dispensed birth control without a prescription. 

Which pharmacies will take part, and when will they start giving out birth control without a prescription? It's all pretty unclear at the moment. A Walgreens spokesperson, when I asked if and when its pharmacies in New York state would start dispensing birth control without a prescription per the new state law, initially thought I was referring to the Opill and sent me a statement telling me that they "expect all stores to have Opill by early April." After I clarified that I was asking about the new state order, the spokesperson told me, "We're still determining the timeline." 

A CVS Pharmacy spokesperson told me something similar, writing that they were supportive of the new law, and that CVS is "evaluating how to bring this service to the state in the future."

As for how any of us will find out which pharmacies are actually handing out birth control sans Rx, New Yorkers will have to do what I did last Friday. As both the governor's office and the DOH told me, "Individuals should reach out to their local pharmacy for more information about if and when the services will be available."

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