Going forward, Utah women will no longer need a prescription to pick up birth-control pills and other contraceptives from their pharmacies, a change meant to reduce unwanted pregnancies in the state.

Scrapping the blanket requirement for a prescription will hopefully lower costs for women and clear away other barriers to family planning, state health officials say.

“At times, a woman knows what she wants but may have a high-deductible plan so that even going back to the doctor costs another 100 or 120 bucks,” said Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, a physician who helped sponsor the 2018 legislation that enabled the change.

The state health department has been working over the past year since the bill’s passage to make rules for this new method of dispensing contraceptives. The agency’s executive director, Joseph Miner, on Wednesday issued a standing order that will effectively function as a statewide prescription authorizing qualifying pharmacists to dispense birth-control pills, contraceptive patches and vaginal rings to women 18 and older.

Miner says one in five of all pregnancies in Utah is unwanted, and it is hoped better access to contraception will bring down those numbers.

"This is critical for the health of families and children," he said.

Pharmacists will have to complete five hours of training to get authorized to distribute the contraceptives without a physician’s prescription. Women can encourage their pharmacists to become qualified or check the health department website for a list of pharmacists who have done the required coursework, Miner said.

Women who walk into a pharmacy will have to fill out a questionnaire screening for risk factors, and patients unable to safely self-administer birth control will be referred to a physician.

But if there are no red flags, a pharmacist can consult with a patient on what form of birth control to use and prescribe the first month of contraceptives. The patient can then return for another two months, if there are no problems, and then come back again to finish out the year, Miner said.

The new rule won't do anything to change the cost of contraceptives, which will be paid out-of-pocket by patients or covered by health insurance.

The change is not intended to discourage people from regular checkups with their medical providers, he said; the new health order requires patients to see a women's care provider at least once every two years to qualify for the self-administered contraceptives.

Health officials aren’t worried about eliminating the need for a physician prescription for contraceptives, since the risks of pregnancy actually outweigh those of taking birth control, said Dr. Marc Babitz, deputy director of the state’s health department.

“There are actually significant risks with pregnancy – hypertension, hemorrhage, miscarriage,” he said.

Miner said some groups have even pushed to make birth control an over-the-counter medication. The legislation that lawmakers passed in 2018 finds a middle ground, he said.

The bill was drafted by a University of Utah pharmacy graduate student who wanted to address the costs and delays that his wife and other women faced when obtaining contraceptives. The student, Wilson Pace, shopped the measure around to several lawmakers, and Sen. Todd Weiler agreed to run it through the Utah Legislature.

“This isn’t rocket science. It’s not 1950. It’s just time to remove some of those artificial barriers," Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said, adding that these hurdles might especially affect lower-income women or those without health insurance.

The state has already issued a similar standing order for naloxone, allowing pharmacists to distribute the opioid overdose-preventing drug without a prescription.