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Morning-After Pill Intensifies Internet Prescribing Debate

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"Younger women are our target, although we found that it's actually young adults that use the service the most," Markus says.

The pills, sold as either Plan B or Preven, provide a large dose of contraceptive hormones and must be taken within 72 hours of intercourse. Advocates say that's another argument for having it available online -- it may be difficult to get traditional medical services in time.

Meanwhile, VirtualMedicalGroup.com also is marketing emergency contraception to women. The company charges $74 to write a prescription for emergency contraception and has provided the drug to 128 women.

Planned Parenthood of Chicago has filled 220 prescriptions for emergency contraception since it started its program last December.

However, this may be just the beginning of cyber pharmacies run by docs who never see their patients.

While emergency contraception is considered so safe that dozens of medical groups have asked that the product become available over the counter, the question of whether or not to prescribe drugs without seeing a doctor first is still hotly debated.

Some prescriptions, Malik argues, don't always require a doctor visit. For example, she suggests there's no reason for a woman to go to the doctor for hair removal treatment when the evaluation can be handled conveniently online.

But Wolfe warns that many web sites are inadequately screened by state medical and pharmacy boards. "Should doctors and pharmacists who are lending their names to Internet drug sites be prosecuted? ... That's the larger issue," Wolfe says.

"We actually looked very carefully at the state laws. ... We employed outside counsel to thoroughly research both federal and state laws for online prescribing," says Markus of the Planned Parenthood approach.

McGinnis says consumers should beware about buying drugs online from "rogue sites," which typically don't offer a phone number or a business address. That could mean the operators are hiding from the authorities. Legitimate sites want you to know who they are, he says.

For the "do's and don'ts" of Internet buying, McGinnis suggests checking the FDA's web site, www.fda.gov. "We try to keep it as simple as possible for the consumer because this has been a hot issue for the last two years now," he says.

Although there was pending federal legislation last year that would have required Internet sites to present a "Good Housekeeping" seal as a condition of doing business, the measures died before they could be debated. Meanwhile, it's up to state medical and pharmacy boards to keep tabs on web pharmacies.

McGinnis says that 42 states now require certification as a "Verified Internet Pharmacy" by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy as a condition of doing business on the web. Still, that doesn't included police powers for those who violate the rules.

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