HHS to probe CVS, Walgreens over post-Roe drug access

HHS will investigate whether retail pharmacies, including Walgreens and CVS, have complied with federal law since the Supreme Court's overturn of Roe v. Wade has sent shockwaves in pharmacies for the past four months. 

"Since Dobbs & state laws that have gone into effect, HHS has received complaints about chain pharmacies across the U.S. for not complying w/ their federal obligations to fill prescriptions," HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra tweeted Oct. 14. HHS' Office for Civil Rights opened investigations into multiple pharmacy chains, he added.

After the landmark decision spurred confusion among healthcare providers about what procedures, care and prescription medicines were still legal, the HHS clarified in mid-July that emergency abortions were legal in every state — regardless of local law — and said retail pharmacies must continue distributing drugs affected by the ruling. 

Despite the federal guidance that warned the nation's 60,000 pharmacies "discrimination against pregnant people on the basis of their pregnancy or related conditions is a form of sex discrimination," there has been a flurry of debates at the pharamacy counter. 

Weeks after the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision in late June, people who use methotrexate, a drug that can be use to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer, said they struggled to access it since the medication can also induce an abortion. HHS said methotrexate and emergency contraceptives are protected under federal law.

Six days after the HHS released the guidance to pharmacies, #BoycottWalgreens trended on Twitter after a Walgreens customer said a worker refused to sell condoms because of religious reasons. 

On the same day of the Dobbs ruling, Walgreens tweeted: "Our policy allows pharmacists to step away from filling a prescription for which they have a moral objection. At the same time, they are also required to refer the prescription to another pharmacist or manager on duty to meet the patient's needs in a timely manner."

A similar incident happened after a physician's Aug. 27 tweet went viral after a CVS temporarily refused to fill a woman's prescription for misoprostol — one of the two drugs used in medication abortion — two days before surgery. 

In some states, CVS Health instructs its employees to ensure with a physician's note that prescriptions for methotrexate and misoprostol aren't intended to induce an abortion. 

CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis told Becker's that pharmacists are "caught in the middle" between providing care and complying with local laws. A few nurse practitioners have filed lawsuits against CVS, accusing the company of firing them because they had a religious exemption and refused to prescribe and sell contraceptives.

In mid-September, Republican House lawmakers introduced a bill that aims to provide national protection to pharmacists who refuse to sell abortion drugs. 

Mr. DeAngelis told Becker's the company "will cooperate with any government inquiry on this complex issue," and a Walgreens spokesperson said the same. 

"We have taken steps to comply with applicable laws," Walgreens spokesperson Scott Goldberg told Becker's. "Our pharmacists will continue to work closely with prescribers as necessary, to fill lawful, clinically appropriate prescriptions. Our top priority is ensuring our patients have access to the medications they need from pharmacists they know and trust."

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