Access to Plan B Gets an F in Lil' D
Because we live in uncertain times in terms of the future of reproductive rights, we followed the advice of high-profile feminist leaders and watchdogs by purchasing a box of Plan B to have on hand for ourselves or anyone in our lives who might need it. The shelf life of the Plan B pill is about three years (one of the boxes we recently purchased has an expiration date of September 2019) so we decided to stock up. But doing so was surprisingly difficult.
Since the 2013 ruling that put Plan B on pharmacy shelves without a prescription, everyone has had, in theory at least, the freedom to control their reproduction if their primary method of contraception failed.
But as numerous reports and media outlets have found, this legislation has been interpreted, and consequently, implemented, in various harmful ways. The FDA’s press release for this action reads as such: “On June 10, 2013, the agency notified a United States District Court judge in New York of its intent to comply with the court’s April 5, 2013 order instructing the FDA to make levonorgestrel-containing emergency contraceptives available as an over-the-counter (OTC) product without age or point-of-sale restrictions.” Nonetheless, countless businesses still refuse to comply with the spirit of the FDA ruling.
We visited five pharmacies in the Denton area and were disappointed to find, in almost all venues, some barrier to access. Come with us on a journey of exasperation and poorly-administered access to reproductive health care. Of course, you can always order online through Amazon with same-day shipping options, and avoid talking to the pharmacist in general.
101 W University Dr, Denton, TX 76201
Though there were shelf labels for both Plan B and a generic alternative at the Walgreens on University (pictured at left) the shelf itself was empty.
One might assume that this store was sold out of the product and leave the store, especially if this person was anxious about procuring the morning-after pill in the first place.
We chose to stand in line to speak to a pharmacist. When we got to the counter, our exchange with the pharmacist went something like this:
“I’d like to purchase Plan B, but it looks like you’re out.”
“Oh no, we keep it behind the counter.”
“Why? The law states that it should be sold over the counter, free from barriers.”
“Well, people steal it when it’s on the shelf."
“That isn’t the consumer’s problem. You’re creating barriers to access.”
The point of making emergency contraception available was designed to minimize the contact between sellers and buyers and thereby circumvent possible intimidation or embarrassment because popular opinion has not been able to keep up with science. Putting Plan B behind the counter to protect your bottom line only helps big business, not consumers and vulnerable populations who may need access to the drug.
GRADE: D. You can purchase the pill here, but only through a lot of judgmental face-to-face contact from huffy pharmacists. Remember to ask for it, since the shelf is misleadingly empty at all times.
Target (CVS) Pharmacy (Right)
1801 S Loop 288, Denton, TX 76205
We were pleased to find that Target, our own personal Shangri-La, did not disappoint in its handling of Plan B. We navigated our way to the CVS pharmacy inside the store (all Target pharmacies were purchased by CVS in 2016) and looked on the shelf for Plan B, and there it was: sitting on the shelf, free from lock boxes, and about two bucks cheaper than other outlets in town.
It was so heartening to see Plan B offered just as the law intended it to be that we waited in line to speak to the pharmacist just to thank her for ensuring that all of us have easy access to emergency contraception. She smiled and said that this is how they’d always sold the drug: free from barriers.
GRADE: A. You can get Plan B and a bunch of dumb toss pillows you definitely want but don’t need without speaking to a single human being if you use self-checkout.
Drug Emporium (Left)
Denton Center, 824 W University Dr, Denton, TX 76201
We decided to check out Drug Emporium’s EC offerings during a late-night grocery run, which, coincidentally, is often a time when customers might be looking for Plan B on the shelves.
Drug Emporium’s pharmacy counter was closed, but there didn’t appear to be any Plan B visibly placed behind the counter or on the shelves. We did find a “Family Planning” section (signage pictured at left) that contained condoms and personal lubricant: a paltry offering, to be sure.
But what’s truly disappointing is the lack of knowledgeable staff. Our in-person exchange with one store employee went like this:
“Do you carry Plan B?”
“Do you know what Plan B is, or are you just saying ‘no’ because you don’t understand?”
“I don’t know what you’re looking for.”
“Ok. I’m looking for Plan B, the emergency contraceptive pill. The morning-after pill.”
“Oh. I have no idea. But I don’t think so.”
GRADE: F. This retailer carries butterscotch stick candy and organic, paraben-free deodorant but doesn’t stock Plan B. Don’t be fooled by the name “Drug Emporium.” This place is a non-starter if you’re looking for emergency contraception.
CVS (Pictured Right)
Address: 1510 W Hickory St., Denton, TX, 76201
Walgreens (Below Left)
1700 S Loop 288, Denton, TX 76205
Both of these pharmacies are about average in their Plan B offerings: both have Plan B and its generic alternative on the shelves, but both are encased in locked boxes.
On the plus side, they don’t confuse customers with empty shelves. The downside, however, is their decision to keep the pill in locked packaging, necessitating an interaction with an employee in order to purchase the drug.
The CVS on Hickory has clear signage and even advertising (!) for Plan B, which is somewhat comforting in that these efforts make them seem uninterested in stigmatizing the drug. The Walgreens on 288, however, has less blatant signage and an ominous (and unnecessary) exhortation to “Please ask for assistance” taped above the Plan B shelf. Yeah, because we were definitely going to Hulk that box out of its plastic tomb right there in the middle of the aisle.
GRADE: C. These two pharmacies are deeply average in both accessibility and pricing. Head here to buy Plan B only if you’re prepared to speak to an employee with a key. You know, because allowing folks to make their own reproductive health decisions is a dangerous drug: you gotta keep that stuff locked down at all times.
Whether you need Plan B now or are stocking up for our uncertain future, know that we all have the right to access emergency contraception. Use social media and word of mouth to alert others to pharmacies that are doing the right thing (and pharmacies that are flouting the FDA ruling by keeping the pill behind the counter). Remember, too, that you can vote with your dollars: we haven’t been inside the Walgreens on University since we tried to buy the pill there.
Lastly, consider donating to organizations such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America if you are able. Both PP and NARAL can provide excellent information on procuring Plan B and the fight to maintain easy access to contraception of all kinds. Remember, too, that although they require appointments for most services, Denton’s Planned Parenthood office accepts walk-ins for those looking to buy Plan B.
While many customers will certainly have the tenacity to hunt high and low for Plan B, visiting many stores and putting the proverbial screws to employees and pharmacists, there are also terrified 17-year-olds scouring the aisles alone at night, too embarrassed or afraid to speak to anyone. These customers are in danger in stores like Walgreens, CVS, and Drug Emporium. These are the people we must continue to fight for, no matter how many barriers we must face.
Photos by Caitlin Pryor
Header image design by Brittany Keeton