Here’s How to Get Birth Control Without a Doctor’s Prescription

a doctor's prescription pad
Katie Mui
Katie Mui is on the Research Team at GoodRx.
Posted on

More and more women across the U.S. can now use hormonal birth control without going through the hassle of having a doctor prescribe it.

7 states – Oregon, California, Colorado, Washington, New Mexico, Hawaii, Tennessee, and Maryland – and Washington, D.C. now allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control, saving women a trip to the doctor’s office. California, Maryland, and D.C. ensure residents get full access to contraception by also providing a 12-month supply at a time and requiring insurers to cover the entire cost. (Women in Illinois and Vermont also can get a 12-month supply paid by insurers, but only with a doctor’s prescription).   

How does it work? What do I do to get a prescription?

  1. Call your pharmacy to see if they offer the birth control prescription service. If not, you may have to call around to find one that does.
  2. When you get to the pharmacy, you’ll be given a short screening questionnaire and have your blood pressure taken to make sure hormonal contraception is appropriate for you. Trained pharmacists will know the pharmacology and screening procedures, and will know how to assess which method is best for each individual, so you’ll be in good hands.
  3. Your pharmacist will work with you to find a brand you can afford, with or without insurance. Refer to our explainer on birth control pills to understand all your options. In some cases, GoodRx can beat your insurance, and you can always use a GoodRx discount instead of your prescription insurance if the cost is lower.

What does this mean for me, specifically?

If you live in Oregon, California, Colorado, Washington, New Mexico or Hawaii, your state law is already in effect. Check the map below (thanks to the Kaiser Family Foundation) to see what type of birth control pharmacist in your state can prescribe. At the minimum, they can recommend and prescribe birth control pills, which have a 9% failure rate with typical use (compared to the 18% failure rate of condoms). California is currently the only state where women can receive a whole year’s supply in one visit.

If you live in D.C., Tennessee or Maryland, expect pharmacy programs to start rolling out as early as January 2019. We’ll report here on the GoodRx blog as we get more information.

What’s the catch?

Making birth control easier to access should encourage more women to get protection. In a 2013 study, 28.0% of participants not using any birth control and 32.7% of participants using a less effective method said they would use oral contraceptives pills if they were available over-the-counter. While the current laws don’t quite make birth control over-the-counter, they do mean women who would otherwise be restricted by work hours, child care, transportation, and money will have more options.

But even though these laws are in place, the service is not mandatory for pharmacies. Researchers found that only 11% of California retail pharmacies offer the service, one year after the law was put into effect. Requirements vary by state but they all require at least some training, so not every pharmacy can automatically offer the service. To see the larger impact legislatures and supporters hope for, more pharmacies would have to get on board. For example, Safeway is the first major retailer in Colorado dedicated to training their pharmacy staff.

One last thing: It’s not free. Pharmacies that do offer the prescription service typically charge between $25-$50. Because the Affordable Care Act only requires insurers to cover family planning services from healthcare providers, women would have to bear the full cost of the pharmacy consultation themselves; some may not be able to. Some states are making moves to change this: Oregon requires Medicaid to pay for the service, while California is hoping to do the same by 2021.

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