July 13, 2023 – The FDA’s approval today of the first birth control pill for women to be available without a prescription is being hailed by many as a long-needed development, but there remain questions to be resolved, including how much the drug will cost and how it will be used.
The drug, Opill, is expected to be available early next year, and its maker has yet to reveal a retail price. It is the same birth control pill that has been available by prescription for 50 years. But for the first time, women will be able to buy the contraception at a local pharmacy, other retail locations, or online without having to see a doctor first.
Likely to Drive Debate
Contraception in the United States is not without controversy. The FDA’s approval spurred reactions both for and against making hormonal birth control for women available without a prescription.
“It's an exciting time, especially right now when reproductive rights are being curtailed in a lot of states. Giving people an additional option for contraception will change people’s lives,” said Beverly Gray, MD, division director of Women’s Community and Population Health at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC.
“It's a huge win for patients who need better access to contraception,” said Gray, who is also a spokesperson for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Women who want hormonal birth control but live in area without convenient access to a doctor, women who cannot easily take time off of work to see a doctor and get a prescription filled, and women without insurance are examples of people who will benefit, she said.
The Catholic Medical Association, in contrast, expressed “deep concern and disappointment” after an FDA advisory committee’s unanimous vote on May 11 recommending the drug be available over the counter. In a statement after the vote, the group cited “extensive medical studies demonstrating the risks and adverse effects of hormonal contraceptives,” adding that “the social impact of [full approval] would be dramatic.”
But doctors largely disagreed.
“It is definitely a huge win for reproductive autonomy. I’m glad that the FDA is prioritizing patient safety and well-being over politics,” said Catherine Cansino, MD, MPH, an OB/GYN and clinical professor in the University of California Davis Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She said the FDA approved the over-the-counter version because the medication is safe.
While opponents like the Catholic Medical Association cite safety concerns and believe doctors should screen all women before prescribing hormonal contraception, Gray disagreed. “There's a lot of evidence that patients can figure out if a progestin-only pill is right for them and safe for them. Medical professionals don't have to be the gatekeepers for contraception,” she said.
Whether insurance companies will pay for Opill now that it will be available without a prescription remains unknown. For some medications, paying a copay through insurance can be less expensive than buying at a retail price.
“Although pricing issues will be relevant, the FDA's decision will enhance women's access to hormonal birth control,” said Andrew M. Kaunitz, MD, a professor and associate chairman in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville.
The drugmaker, Perrigo, based in Ireland, has not yet announced how much the pill will cost. The price tag could affect how widely available this form of birth control is. The drug has been shown to be as much as 93% effective for pregnancy prevention. Perrigo says it plans to make the pill available at low or no cost to some women.
Caveats to Consider
There are some women for whom hormonal contraceptives have always carried greater risks. For example, women who have breast cancer or a history of breast cancer should not use hormonal contraceptives, the FDA said in a news release announcing the approval. Women with other types of cancer should check with their doctors first, the agency noted.
Women who smoke, who take some medications to lower blood pressure, or who have migraines should also take caution, Cansino said. “People with migraines may not be suitable for over-the-counter oral contraceptives. But a simple screening through a provider can identify whether you are truly eligible or not.”
Irregular bleeding, headaches, dizziness, nausea, increased appetite, belly pain, cramps, or bloating are the most common side effects of Opill, the FDA said.
The Opill is a progestin-only birth control pill. Similar pills have been available in the U.K. for about 2 years, often referred to as “mini pills” because they contain a single hormone. In contrast, prescription birth control pills in the U.S. and elsewhere contain more than one hormone, estrogen and progestin, to prevent pregnancy.
Prescription pill packs for combination contraception often feature a week of placebo pills without an active ingredient. While skipping a placebo pill might not make a difference in pregnancy prevention, Opill is different. Every pill in the packet will contain medication, Gray said. “So it's important to take the pill the same time every day for it to be most effective.”
Even though this may mean one less visit to your doctor, Kaunitz hopes women will stay up to date on their other medical checkups. “One of our challenges as providers of care to women will be to encourage them to continue to receive important services, including cancer screening and vaccinations, even while they can initiate and continue hormonal contraception without contact with a provider.”
Just the Beginning?
The American Medical Association hopes this approval signals more to come.
“While we applaud this move, the AMA continues to urge the FDA and HHS to consider a variety of oral contraceptive options for over-the-counter use,” the association, which has more than 250,000 doctor members, said in a statement. “It is important patients have options when choosing which type of birth control works best for them,”
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said the FDA’s decision will help many women. “We are glad that more patients will now be empowered to choose when and where they obtain a safe method of contraception without having to wait for a medical appointment or for a prescription to be filled,” Verda J. Hicks, MD, the group’s president, and Christopher M. Zahn, MD, interim chief executive officer, said in a statement.
“Allowing individuals to access birth control at their local pharmacy or drug store will eliminate some barriers,” they said.