HELENA – The Montana Board of Pharmacy took no action Wednesday after hearing comment on the issue of pharmacists who refuse to dispense contraceptives because of religious beliefs.
Montana currently has no rule or statute that requires pharmacies to stock every drug on the market, and “we decided to leave it at that,” board President Jim Cloud of Stevensville said.
Board member Mark Meredith of Helena added that a decision on whether new regulations are necessary should come from state lawmakers, not the six-member pharmacy board.
“I think we should wait and see what happens in the Legislature,” he said.
Planned Parenthood of Montana requested time on the board’s agenda in response to recent incidents in which pharmacists in Great Falls and Broadus refused to fill patients’ prescriptions for birth control and “morning-after” pills because of their religious beliefs.
Stacey Anderson, the organization’s director of public affairs, urged the board Wednesday to establish a rule that protects women’s access to birth control. She asked board members to be proactive in addressing the issue to “prevent future personal refusals and to clearly define the standard of care expected of licensed pharmacies.”
“Passively allowing pharmacies to refuse service to patients because an alternative exists in that community does not address the issue at hand _ that patients’ medical needs are being denied because of another individual’s personal beliefs,” Anderson said. “As the state’s agent, the Montana Board of Pharmacy has a legitimate interest in ensuring that pharmacists’ personal beliefs do not impede access to legally prescribed medication.”
After the meeting, Anderson said her organization will continue to look for ways to make its case through “administrative and legal avenues.” She added that she doesn’t agree that the issue should be decided by the state’s lawmakers.
“Politics in Montana changes every two years, and that’s not how health care should be regulated,” Anderson said.
Jeff Laszloffy, president and CEO of the Montana Family Foundation, said he was glad the board decided not to “usurp the authority of the Legislature.”
Laszloffy told the board that the people’s elected representatives are the ones who should be wrestling with such “gut-wrenching moral and ethical issues.”
“Planned Parenthood is famous for saying that government should never be allowed to come between a woman and her physician, yet they’re asking you to do something even more egregious,” he said. “They’re asking you to place government squarely between a pharmacist and God.”
Laszloffy said his group will be backing a “physician’s conscience clause” during the upcoming legislative session that protects physicians, pharmacists and other health care professionals from being forced to participate in any act that violates their conscience. Similar bills have passed in nine other states, he said.
Others who spoke to the board Wednesday included Scott Crichton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana; and John Lane, the Broadus pharmacist who made headlines in the fall when he announced he would stop dispensing contraceptives.
Lane told the board he doesn’t believe a person’s beliefs should be legislated against.
Lane, a Roman Catholic, believes human life should be both recognized and protected from conception. He stopped dispensing contraceptives in January and said he doesn’t believe residents in his rural southeastern Montana town have had much difficulty accessing them elsewhere.
Crichton, meanwhile, said pharmacies are state-regulated businesses that have a responsibility to supply medication to patients. They serve the general public, including people of diverse backgrounds and faith, he said.
“Because of this, a pharmacy operates in the public world and should play by public rules,” Crichton said. “If an individual pharmacist has a religious objection to selling birth control, that objection should be honored so long as the pharmacy ensures that the patient remains able to purchase birth control onsite in a timely manner.”
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