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Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

FDA: Plan B contraceptive available to all – but could price hinder access in South LA?

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The Food and Drug Administration announced on Thursday it has officially approved the emergency contraceptive Plan B One-Step for over-the-counter sale to all women of childbearing age. 

The announcement comes a little more than a week after the Obama Administration said it would cease its effort to restrict the sale of Plan B, also known as the morning-after pill.

Health providers and professionals in South Los Angeles have said the morning-after pill is an important tool in the effort to reduce the area's teenage pregnancy rate, which is the highest in L.A. County.

But for an under-resourced community like South L.A. – which relies largely on the social safety-net for health care services – the FDA's announcement comes with an important caveat: Restrictions aren't being lifted on the generic, cheaper versions of the morning-after pill.

"Yesterday's approval for OTC use only applies to Teva's Plan B One-Step product – in compliance with the court's order," wrote FDA spokeswoman Erica Jefferson in an email to KPCC.

Calls to several South L.A. pharmacies found Plan B prices ranging between $40 and $55 for a single pill. That can add up.

Dr. Cesar Barba, the interim medical director at UMMA Community Clinic in South L.A., called the FDA's Thursday announcement an "important step."

"It's important for access," he said. "It's important to be able to give people options without having to go to their doctor in regards to birth control options."

But the fact that less expensive generics will remain restricted, added Barba, can hinder access in South L.A., where nearly 1 in 3 households have incomes below the federal poverty level.

"It's one step forward and kind of a half-step back," he said.

A good next step, said Barba, would be to make more non-emergency contraceptives available over-the-counter.

"Plan B isn't really a good form of birth control," he said. "We need to have something like oral contraceptives available over the counter because those are much more effective birth control options than [regularly] using Plan B, given that Plan B is only supposed to be used in an emergency."

He added that another, more obvious step, would be to also lift restrictions on the generic equivalents of Plan B One-Step.

The battle over just how available the morning-after pill should be has been a long and complicated one. By lifting all age and point-of-sale restrictions on Plan B One-Step, the FDA has achieved compliance with an April 5 ruling by a federal judge.

If taken within one day of unprotected sex, the morning-after pill can prevent pregnancy with an effectiveness rate of up to 95 percent. It remains highly effective if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.

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